The European Passengers’ Federation (EPF) wants the European Commission to take fresh action to safeguard access to transparent, comprehensive and unbiased information for passengers buying tickets and travel services. The passenger watch-dog states that the European Commission should be investigating growing claims that big airlines may be abusing their dominant position. Josef Schneider, EPF’s chair, says: “The Commission should use its powers to investigate allegations that carriers are abusing their dominance of the on-line retail market for travel, and show that it is on the side of its citizens – and of the wider benefits that transparent product information can deliver for the European economy.”

The European Commission is currently reviewing the EU law governing computerised reservation systems (Regulation (EC) 80/2009). These are used for travel bookings, particularly for air travel. The Regulation establishes a code of conduct that is designed to prevent abuse of competition and to ensure that the information provided to consumers is neutral. EPF fully supports the core objective of the Code of Conduct for computerised reservation systems (CRSs), i.e. to ensure air passengers’ access to comprehensive, transparent and unbiased information on available travel options.

Unfortunately, it has become increasingly difficult to compare prices. A search for a specific city-to-city travel through a CRS, such as Amadeus, a meta-search engine like Google or an airline’s own website may yield three different results. The obligation to provide a neutral display currently only applies to ‘traditional’ CRSs. EPF wants the scope of the CRS Regulation widened in order to include other travel distribution channels – such as meta-search engines or the airlines’ own websites.

EPF also says that the cross-modal potential of CRSs has not been fully exploited. Currently the CRS Regulation applies only to air (and air-rail) travel, but not to rail-only or coach services. The Code of Conduct should serve as a model for multimodal Computerised Reservation Systems (and other online channels that enable passengers to compare and reserve their travel). For example, travelling from Frankfurt (Main) to Brussels, passengers can choose at least one of the following options: air (Lufthansa), high-speed Rail (ICE, DB/Thalys), rail (IC DB/SNCB) or coach (Flixbus). There is currently no easy way for passengers to obtain comparable information when making their travel choices. The case for multimodal information is really greater consumer choice, more competition, decarbonisation and modal shift.

In addition, the growing extent and scale of possible infringements against the CRS Regulation are of increasing concern to EPF and its member associations. In their struggle to tailor the package that they offer customers to individual needs and thereby maximise their revenues more profitably, airlines are increasingly offering ancillary services as add-ons to the basic fare. These cover things like luggage allowances, seating choices, on-board food and services and priority boarding. The CRS Regulation requires CRSs to display any taxes, charges and surcharges that are ‘unavoidable and unforeseeable’ at the time. However, there is no consensus on what constitutes the ‘basic’ travel product and what should be considered as ‘ancillary service’. The objective of having a neutral display is undermined if there is no like-for-like comparison. EPF considers that air carriers should make all their fares (e.g. economy, business class) available in all CRSs, and ensure that information on which ancillary services are included and which are charged as extras is provided in a way that enables users to make an informed choice when purchasing their travel.

Last December, ETTSA (the European Technology and Travel Services Association), and VIR (Verband Internet Reisevertrieb) filed a joint complaint with the European Commission’s antitrust authority (DG COMP) for alleged abuse of dominance by Germany’s Lufthansa Group and discriminatory practices against independent distributors of airline tickets, stating that Lufthansa Group refuses to supply its cheapest fare classes through CRSs and imposes unjustified surcharges on independent distributors.

Josef Schneider, Chairman: “EPF shares ETTSA’s and VIR’s concerns that the consolidation of air carriers and the evolution of channel distribution arrangements is challenging the transparency and neutrality that the CRS Regulation was designed to secure. EPF therefore wants the European Commission to investigate these issues further. The review of the CRS Regulation provides the opportunity to both safeguard and advance the best interest of consumers. Better informed consumers drive better performing service and help create an airline industry that is more competitive globally.”

Ghent, 17. January 2019