A third of people ripped off by online airplane tickets

A third of people who buy airline tickets online are being ripped off by incorrect pricing and other "unfair practices", the European Union has warned.

EU Consumer Commissioner Meglena Kuneva says that airlines, tour operators and price comparison websites are misleading their customers through false advertising and “unfair practices”.

A European-wide investigation unveiled “serious and persistent” problems with ticket sales across the airline industry.

"It is unacceptable that one in three consumers going to book a plane ticket online is being ripped off or mislead and confused", says Kuneva. “My message to industry is clear, act now or we will act.”

The EU’s investigation will now focus on working with member states to resolve issues surrounding the sale of airline tickets.

Kuneva has set a deadline of 1 May 2009 for things to improve, and has warned airline companies to clean up their acts or face the consequences.

A report from the investigation singles out misleading pricing as the biggest problem facing consumers. It also found that many contracts included irregularities such as pre-checked boxes for optional services. The non-availability of advertised offers was another issue reoccurring on many airline ticket sites.

The majority of websites accused by the EU of misleading consumers were airline operators, but it says the same problems exist on travel agency and tour operator sites, as well as price comparison sites.

However, at this stage legal constraints mean the worst offenders cannot be named and shamed.

Norway and Sweden have both made public lists of company websites under investigation, but other member states have not disclosed which companies were found by the investigation to employ unsavory sales practices.

Norway says its consumer ombudsman has previously found three foreign airlines operating in conflict with EU rules - these were Finland's Blue 1, Austrian Airlines and Ireland's Ryanair.

Ryanair was criticised for using pre-checked boxes for priority boarding. It has now been asked to change this.

Its practice of charging a fee for all credit cards other than VISA Electron, and not including this in the advertised price, was also the subject of concern for Norway. However, the Irish consumer ombudsman ruled this wasn't in conflict with EU rules.

How to avoid being ripped-off

Websites selling airplane tickets should provide clear information about price, availability of offers and contract terms and conditions. These should be in the same language of the main site.

The EU says unclear information about the cost of tickets is one of the most serious issues facing consumers buying flights online.

It advises people to watch out for non-optional charges being added throughout the booking process or at the end. For example, taxes, booking and credit card fees, fuel charges and invoice fees all add up meaning the end price is often different to the advertised one.

Offers promoted on websites that fail to materialise are another issue that the EU will probe going forward. Don’t fall for eye-catching marketing campaigns as the deal you are actually offered might not live up to your expectations.

Finally, if a website you are using to book flights with doesn’t have any contact details for customers services then consider taking your business elsewhere.