Airlines told to end price discrimination

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The Independent Online

Europe's airlines have been forced to end price differences of up to 300 per cent offered on the same flights in different countries, after a six-month inquiry into their ticketing policies.

Europe's airlines have been forced to end price differences of up to 300 per cent offered on the same flights in different countries, after a six-month inquiry into their ticketing policies.

The announcement came at the end of an investigation by the European Commission into the fares charged by 18 European airlines including British Airways, Air France, Lufthansa, SAS, British Midland, and Virgin Atlantic. BA and SAS admitted having the different ticket charges but Giles Gantelet, spokesman for Loyola de Palacio, the EU transport commissioner, said all airlines had now ended the practice. "A little bit of naming and shaming has achieved results," he added.

One example discovered was of a return flight from Frankfurt to Berlin which cost €88 (£59) when purchased in Germany but €268 in Belgium. A 50 per cent differential was found in a flight between the UK and Germany.

Although the internet has revolutionised airline ticket sales, many companies still structure their systems so that travellers have to use a website geared to their country of residence. As personal information and credit card addresses have to be provided, and tickets often have to be mailed out, there is no opportunity to circumvent the system by using a site belonging to the same company in another country. Similar factors have applied to purchases made via travel agents or direct from airlines sales' offices.

However EU law means that companies are not allowed to discriminate between European customers on the grounds of their place of residence.

Of the 18 airlines contacted by the commission, 16 responded, with most saying that they did not operate in this way, and others saying they had stopped the practice. Italy's Alitalia said that, due to its current financial crisis, it was unable to give a proper response and Olympic Airlines of Greece failed to reply.

However a test by the commission confirmed that all airlines had ended the practices. Mr Gantelet said: "In rare cases some restrictions may still exist for certain paper-based tickets, but all electronic tickets are now available throughout the EU without discrimination, except - in some cases - for differences in handling fees. As a result, price levels are now similar for all EU residents." He added that the commission would continue to monitor the airlines to make sure the problem does not return.

Steve Double, head of news at BA, said: "It is an issue which we were always comfortable with and we were always confident of the outcome." Yesterday's announcement also marks a successful outcome for the Commission, which might have had difficulty making a legal case stick.

The Commission's powers over airline prices are limited, although it could take action if it judged that there had been a breach of EU treaty provisions, which lay down a level playing field for business within the internal market.

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