Brussels launches inquiry into air fare 'rip-off'

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The Independent Online

An Investigation into internet ticket pricing policies at 18 airlines, including British Airways, was launched yesterday after complaints of massive differences in prices charged for the same journey.

The European Commission said it is concerned that the carriers are varying the fares charged to individuals, depending on their country of residence. Price differences on tickets can be as high as 300 per cent, the Commission said.

BA last night denied it charged different fares for exactly the same flights, but the Dublin-based low-cost carrier Ryanair welcomed the inquiry.

Giles Gantelet, spokesman for the European Transport Commissioner, Loyola de Palacio, said "several hundred" complaints had been received from travellers charged different prices for the same ticket, depending on their place of residence within the EU. "We are asking the airlines to explain the practices," Mr Gantelet said.

The Commission said that the complaints concern identical tickets. The contested price differences "are thus not linked to the date of purchase, the possibility to change one's reservation or to any other service feature which could explain varying costs".

It added: "The price differential seems to be exclusively linked to the place of residence of the buyer."

One example discovered during early inquiries was of a return flight from Frankfurt to Berlin which cost €88 when purchased in Germany but €268 in Belgium. A 50 per cent differential was found in a flight between the UK and Germany.

Many airlines structure their sales systems so that travellers have to use a website geared to their country of residence. As personal information has to be provided and tickets often have to be mailed out, there is no opportunity to use a site belonging to the same company in another country. Similar factors apply to purchases made via travel agents or direct from airline sales offices, EU officials said.

The Commission has sent a letter to the Association of European Airlines, which represents most major European carriers, asking its members to answer the allegations. The association said last night that it had yet to receive the complaint and was therefore unable to make any comment.

But Steve Double, head of news at BA, said: "We do not have different prices for exactly the same flights within the EU as that would already be in breach of current regulations. We have not received a letter from the Commission but we will be happy to respond fully when we know the contents."

Although the Commission's powers over airline prices are limited, it could take action if it believes there has been a breach of EU treaty provisions which lay down a level playing field for business. Court action could follow if the Commission is not satisfied with the airlines' responses, though that might be difficult given current laws.

Mr Gantelet admitted the exercise was, in part, "about naming and shaming the airlines."

The investigation is a boost for the low-cost carriers, like Ryanair and easyJet, who do not appear on the Commission's list. They generally use a single website and give passengers a code instead of a ticket.

Their prices "are more or less the same across the board", Mr Gantelet said.

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