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Airline carriers and flight booking sites under scrutiny

13 foreign companies in the airline business came under review for using misleading marketing practices in September 2007 when the Danish Consumer Ombudsman took a closer look at online flight booking facilities. There are irregularities inconsistent with the relevant EU Directives transposed into Danish legislation, says the Ombudsman. He now publishes the names of the websites where problems with pricing and terms of contract persist.

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12 airline companies with services from Danish airports and one booking service agency – and thereby 13 inquiries in total now being handled by the Consumer Ombudsman’s colleagues in the EU. That was the Danish result of a major EU investigation, involving 16 Member States and carried out last autumn. The aim of the investigation, or sweep as it is also called, was to check up on online booking practices used by airlines carriers.

Websites with irregularities

Of the 13 airlines carriers and ticket selling sites checked in September last year, five have corrected the information stated on their websites and one carrier no longer operates air services to Denmark.

However, when the Consumer Ombudsman recently checked the information and/or procedures used, the following sites still contained incorrect information and/or made use of misleading booking procedures:

Ryanair, Air Berlin, Air Baltic, SkyEurope, Aer Lingus, Brussels Airlines and Seat24.

‘The consumers have the right to know where to keep a close watch. I am very pleased that many companies have corrected their websites to the benefit of Danish consumers. I have contacted the remaining carriers and ticket selling sites to make sure that they know that there are problems that remain to be solved. I continue to follow the steps taken by my European colleagues in the matters in question,’ states Consumer Ombudsman Henrik Øe.

As the companies are based in other EU countries, it is the authority in the home country of the company that carries out further investigation. The authority in the home land is obliged to intervene in the event that it deems the irregularity in question an infringement of national law and EU legislation.

What to look out for

In May 2008 the EU Commission issued a mid-term status of the findings made by 13 of the 16 countries participating in the sweep. Misleading price indications and unfair terms of contract are among the main culprits. The Danish results confirm the overall picture.

See the press release issued by the EU Commission in connection with the mid-term status in May

It is a good idea to pay close attention to whether the following practices are adhered to:

The first price shown should be the full price inclusive of all taxes, fees and charges.
-The first price introduced to the consumer in the booking process should be the total price including all charges, taxes and fees. Several carriers did not show the full or total price until later in the process.

Unfair terms of contract
-Some sites feature pre-ticked travel insurances or other services which the consumer encounters in the booking process. Tacit agreement, which it is called, is considered an unfair term of contract in that the consumer has to actively opt out of receiving the service as he or she may otherwise have accepted the offer unintentionally.

‘The EU investigation has shown that online flight booking practices leave a thing or two to be desired. This means that consumers should pay close attention when booking a flight. Even as my European colleagues and I look into the irregularities encountered in the 2007 sweep, there are undoubtedly other airline companies and ticket selling sites whose websites contain misleading information,’ Henrik Øe concludes.

The Consumer Ombudsman checked a total of 61 websites in the 2007 sweep.

The companies have been heard prior to the present publication. A few of the companies, Ryanair and Air Berlin, have informed the Consumer Ombudsman that they disagree with his assessment.

The Swedish booking service site Seat24 has said to the Consumer Ombudsman that its website will be brought into compliance in the beginning of August.

See the press release about the sweep from September 2007

See the Danish May 2008 press release concerning the mid-term results from 13 EU countries