EU Consumer Commissioner Meglena Kuneva today announced the results of an EU wide investigation – involving 15 EU national authorities as well as Norway – against misleading advertising and unfair practices on airline ticket selling websites. The clampdown covers Europe’s leading airlines, low cost carriers as well as other websites selling airline tickets. The results of the inquiry show that over 50% of all websites showed irregularities, in particular relating to price indications, contract terms and clarity of proposed conditions.
In the week of 24-28 September, in the first ever EU joint enforcement action on consumer rights (co-ordinated by the European Commission), national enforcement authorities in Austria, Belgium, Bulgaria, Cyprus, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, France, Greece, Italy, Lithuania, Malta, Portugal, Spain, Sweden and also Norway scrutinised over 400 web sites to check their compliance with EU consumer law. This sweep check is followed by an enforcement phase when companies are contacted by authorities and asked to correct websites or clarify their position. Commissioner Kuneva warned today that she is giving companies four months to respond. As well as facing possible legal action, she will not hesitate to name and shame companies who fail to take action to bring sites in line with EU law once that deadline expires.
“Whether you are in Brussels or Barcelona or Munich or Manchester, consumers deserve clear and fair pricing and no hidden surprises in the small print of contract terms,” said EU Consumer Affairs Commissioner Meglena Kuneva. “We discovered that about 50% of airline ticket selling websites are currently letting Europe’s consumers down. The figures released today show that there is a substantial problem in the industry. This is a European issue which requires Europe-wide action. She added, “Today I am issuing the strongest possible warning to companies to take swift action to put their house in order. Once the January deadline expires I will not hesitate to go further and name and shame companies which are still breaking the law.”
This EU “sweep” is a new kind of EU enforcement action – a systematic check carried out simultaneously and in a co-ordinated way in different Member States to investigate breaches of consumer protection law. This airline ticket selling investigation was launched and co-ordinated by the European Commission under the Consumer Protection Co-operation Regulation, which came into force at the end 2006.
How does it work?
During the same week at the end of September, participating national authorities used a common methodology and pre-defined search terms such as “air-ticket, cheap flight, travel, last minute, air miles, fly cheap” to identify and investigate web sites selling air tickets, targeting consumers in their countries. Hundreds of sites were scanned by national officials to identify those which appear to be in breach of EU law (Misleading Advertising Directive 84/450/EEC and Council Directive on Unfair Terms in Consumer Contracts 93/13/EEC).
The sweep investigation focused on three key practices:
– Clear Pricing: A clear indication of the total price should be given in the headline price first advertised on a website i.e additional charges such as taxes, booking or credit card fees should be clearly indicated from the start rather than added at a later stage of the booking
– Availability: Any conditions to the offer, particularly limitations on the availability of an offer, should be clearly indicated. Prices and special offers are often used to lure consumers into the process of booking a flight – in reality there are only a very limited number of seats available under the advertised offer
– Fair Contract Terms: General Contract Terms must be clearly indicated, easily accessible and fair. Unfair practices include, mandatory insurance attached to an offer, or where consumers have to explicitly opt-out of an insurance clause, rather than opt-in. Contract terms and conditions must be available in the language of the consumer.
What happens next?
After the sweep, companies will be contacted by authorities and asked to provide clarification or change their practices. Those who fail to do so could face legal action leading to fines or closure of their websites. In practice, national authorities will investigate and take enforcement actions for national cases. For cross border cases they will request assistance from colleagues in other EU authorities via the CPC (e.g. where the trader operates from another country).
Source: EU Consumer Affairs website