Page last updated at 22:41 GMT, Wednesday, 9 July 2008 23:41 UK

Will ban restore EU's airfare clarity?

By Chris Mason
BBC News, Strasbourg

Passengers at Dublin Airport in Ireland. Photo: 9 July 2008
The new rules are likely to come into force across Europe by the end
Has it ever been possible to fly from one side of Europe to the other for the cost of a newspaper?

No - insist Euro MPs in Strasbourg. Very, very rarely, if ever, admit most airline executives.

And yet adverts and websites suggesting you can have been around for years.

"You or I might see an advert for an airfare for 99p," British MEP Robert Evans says. "But we'll end up paying 99. Those ads are misleading - and it's great this regulation will stop them."

The new law agreed by members of the European Parliament means that all taxes, unavoidable charges, surcharges and fees will have to included in the advertised fares airlines offer.

The industry is welcoming it - at least publicly - and MEPs nodded it through without even a formal vote.

So why has it taken so long to do it?

'Half-obliged' passengers

Timothy Kirkhope MEP, the Conservative party's Transport spokesman who has been campaigning for this change for years, offers an interesting insight into this issue.

Consumers are getting a little bit fed up with the fact that what they pay doesn't always bare a great deal of resemblance to what they're offered
David Henderson
Association of European Airlines

"There has been some resistance within the airline industry," he tells me, as we chat outside the parliament's hemicycle debating chamber.

"Some airlines would have liked to have had some advantages over their rivals by not having to specifically itemise the amounts of money people are going to have to find when they buy a ticket."

Mr Kirkhope suggests that airlines being less than candid about their fares costs passengers a lot of money.

This is because many agree with friends or family to take a flight based on the advertised cost, only to find out when they book that it will be much more expensive than they thought.

"When people do the actual booking, they are already almost half-obliged to continue with it - and then find out what these extra charges are at a late point. It's clearly very unfair," he says.

'Clarity restored'

The discussions with the airlines now over, industry representatives are keen to be seen to welcome greater transparency and recognise that their marketing strategies may have led to cynicism amongst passengers.

An Easyjet plane prepares for a take-off at London's Gatwick airport. Photo: July 2008
No-frills operators have revolutionised the seat-selling system

David Henderson, from the Association of European Airlines, which represents 35 of the long established flag carriers such as British Airways, Air France and Lufthansa, acknowledges what has motivated this change in the rules.

"Consumers are getting a little bit fed up with the fact that what they pay doesn't always bear a great deal of resemblance to what they're offered," he says.

"Airlines are happy that clarity is being restored and the consumer is being given the correct information from now on," Mr Henderson adds.

Baggage issue

The low cost carriers, which have revolutionised European air travel in the last decade, are also backing the European Union resolution.

But what is motivating the airlines' decisions - and what pressures are they facing?

At EasyJet, we do regard hold baggage as an avoidable cost. I realise this might sound slightly strange to some people
Toby Nicol, Easyjet

No-frills operators like Easyjet and Ryanair - which have transformed themselves from upstart regional operators to two of the biggest names in European aviation - have fundamentally altered how the industry sells seats on planes.

As oil prices soar, they have been able to use the flexibility of their ticket pricing to give themselves the best chance of still making money.

Critics say - at least in the past - that this led to adverts that were misleading.

EasyJet and Ryanair disagree. They argue that existing legislation in the UK has done much to phase out claims of 99p fares - and this plan from the EU will ensure this happens across the continent.

But here comes the caveat.

The decision by the European parliament relates only to advertising all the "unavoidable costs" of an airfare. In other words, paying just enough to make sure they let you on the plane.

It will still be perfectly legal to advertise this fare - but charge us a lot more if we would like the privilege of putting a suitcase in the hold. Even more on top of that if we would like to sit next to our partner. And even more still if we would like to get on the plane first.

"At EasyJet, we do regard hold baggage as an avoidable cost. I realise this might sound slightly strange to some people," says Toby Nicol, Easyjet's communications director.

"But given the high price of oil we want to encourage people to pack less - because it is cheaper for us if you do that. And why should our passengers - who don't take any hold baggage at all - have to subsidise those who do?" Mr Nicol says.

The new rules are likely to come into force across Europe by the end of the year.

Yes, working out how much an air ticket will cost might have just got a bit simpler.

But what you see still will not be quite what you get - at least most of the time.

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