Tricks of the trade

Is a High Court judgment going to cause a flood of compensation claims, asks Simon Calder
Click to follow
The Independent Travel
When is a tax not a tax? When, according to Mr Justice Timothy Walker, it is "a way of increasing the air fare to the passenger, but implying that the increase has come from the government or the airports".

That was his judgement in the High Court case brought by the Association of British Travel Agents (Abta) against British Airways, Virgin Atlantic and Lufthansa over the inclusion of passenger service charges in the "tax" section of airline tickets.

Here's the background. A year ago, BA announced it would start listing the Passenger Service Charge - a sum levied by airports as part of their normal fees - as an extra item on tickets. The charge varies from one airport to another, from pounds 4 to pounds 15, on either arriving or departing travellers. At Heathrow, Britain's busiest airport, it is pounds 7.30 for each outbound passenger.

The practice came into effect in April, and has been adopted by more than 70 airlines. Many fares were increased by the amount of PSC, effectively making travellers pay twice for the same thing. Callers to BA's reservations department were told that a "new tax" had been imposed on travellers, even though the cost had previously been included in the ticket price.

In the High Court, Abta said agents were told by airlines to misrepresent the charge as a new levy. The association's chief executive, Ian Reynolds, said: "Our members were being asked to mislead the public".

In a scathing judgement against the airlines, Mr Justice Timothy Walker said the inclusion of the PSC in the tax section of tickets was "thoroughly misleading". The decision raises the intriguing possibility of a flood of compensation claims by passengers. An estimated 25 million people have flown from Britain's airports in the past eight months with scheduled tickets showing PSC as a tax. If a test case decides that travellers were deceived about the nature of the charge, millions of passengers from the UK and abroad could seek compensation.

The ruling does not affect holiday charters, nor flights with no-frills airlines such as easyJet and Go, because PSC is not listed as a separate item. But a family of four who have flown scheduled from Heathrow or Manchester could claim around pounds 30, while large businesses could make bulk claims running to millions of pounds.

The airlines have been given leave to appeal, but meanwhile British Airways and Virgin Atlantic have altered the wording on their tickets and websites to make clear that PSC is not a tax. This has not become standard practice: the other defendant, Lufthansa, is still including the charge as a "tax" according to an online booking made by the Independent. And reservations staff at Air Miles, BA's frequent-flyer offshoot, are still insisting that passenger service charges are taxes. A researcher from the Independent was told that, on a booking from Heathrow to Glasgow, "tax is pounds 22 ... obviously we can't do anything about that".

In fact, the only genuine tax that applies to this booking is pounds 10 of Air Passenger Duty, so BA/Air Miles could do plenty about taxing the credulity of its customers.

The wrong kind of passport

If you're annoyed about the increase in the cost of a British passport, console yourself that at least it will entitle you to catch a charter flight. Page 96 of the Manos India/Sri Lanka brochure warns: "Indian and Sri Lankan passport-holders are not permitted to avail themselves of our direct charter flight services which are restricted to bona fide non- Indian/Sri Lankan tourists, by order of the governments of India and Sri Lanka". Apparently, the reason is a desire to protect the national airlines of these countries from competition.

A couple more interesting points from the same brochure: "As with any holiday, you'll be given various tickets and vouchers. Hang on to them until you're back in the UK - bureaucrats like nothing more than to ask for that crumpled piece of paper you threw away because they have to stamp it (in triplicate)." Before you get too content about that convenient departure time, be warned "flight timings indicated are for guidance only and are our best estimates based on historical experience of airline flying programmes". And if you want something different from the standard in- flight meal: "Some meals, ie Kosher, are subject to an additional charge."

Credit to the industry?

"I've just booked a ticket by phone to Saumur in France with Rail Europe," writes Stephen Moorby. "At the end of the transaction, they revealed that it would cost me pounds 3 extra to pay by credit card. I asked to speak to a supervisor. I told him that a) I thought they were taking advantage b) if I could find a firm who wouldn't charge extra for credit-card bookings I would use them in future and c) I would write to you in the hope that you would blow the whistle on this practice in your column.

It's hardly the scam of the century but it felt like just another of the small ways companies try to milk their customers while pretending to be helpful and competitive."

How safe is your plane?

Our story of this title, which appeared in the Independent on Sunday on 14 November, attracted plenty of comment - including responses from three Asian airlines, who felt the survey did not fairly represent their safety records.

"Air China is one of 30 airlines within China and has been operating since 1954," writes Richard Burgess, the airline's Market Development Manager. "We operate over 500 weekly flights to over 100 domestic and international destinations using one of the world's most modern Boeing fleet. Since our inception, the airline has not suffered a single fatal incident. This equates to one of the world's longest flight-safety records, a fact that was recognised by the ICAO, an international aviation body, in 1994 with an award for our commitment to safety."

"Singapore Airlines is listed as having had `one fatal event per million flights'," writes the carrier's Gerry Stevens. "This is totally incorrect. To date, Singapore Airlines' record is nil such occurences. On referring to the source [the website AirSafe.com], I see there is a listing for Singapore Airlines/ SilkAir. It is clearly stated there that the accident in question involved a SilkAir aircraft in December 1997. SilkAir is a fully owned subsidiary company of the Singapore Airlines Group, but is otherwise totally independent, with its own management, staff, crew and fleet."

David Mawdsley, Head of Corporate Safety for Cathay Pacific, writes "Over the past 25 years, Cathay Pacific has carried 147 million passengers with an exemplary safety record and no fatalities." He points out that: "The fleet consists of Airbus A330, A340, Boeing 777 and 747 aircraft, all of which - as your article pointed out - have outstanding safety records".

Mr Mawdsley is correct about these aircraft being statistically safe - a view not shared by a contributor to a London local radio station last week, who told listeners: "Wherever you're going this Christmas, make sure it's not on a Boeing 747 or a DC-10". This assertion is misplaced. Both aircraft are very safe.

"It just seems like a rise"

"There is always an annual hiatus when Brittany Ferries' timetable runs out in November and the reprinted brochures appear in late December," writes David Smith of Bath. "Up until this year, prices have been relatively stable, so one could refer back to the current brochure and make a fair stab at the price. So I get the bug to pop over to France for a long weekend. Overnight Portsmouth to St Malo next Thursday, back from Cherbourg on the Sunday. Quick calculation based on the November brochure. Frequent- traveller discount applied - total pounds 97.

Phone to book ticket. "That'll be pounds 127," says helpful youth. "Hang on," I say, "that's a rise of 30 per cent." "No sir, we've just adjusted our prices so that it's more expensive if you travel at peak periods like weekends. It only seems like a price rise."

Simon Calder welcomes suggestions for inclusion in this monthly review, and responses from the companies mentioned. Please write to Travel, Independent on Sunday, One Canada Square, Canary Wharf, London E14 5DL (fax: 0171- 293 2182; e-mail: travel@independent.co.uk)

Comments