Here is another piece of news of interest for on line travel agencies operating in Italy.

On December 20th 2017 the AGCM, the Italian Authority for the protection of Competition and the Market has concluded the assessment of the commercial practices of six companies (LMnext CH S.A. - http://www.it.lastminute.com/; BravoNext S.A. - http://www.volagratis.com/; Opodo Italia S.r.l. - http://www.opodo.it/; Go Voyages S.A.S. - http://www.govolo.it/; eDreams S.r.l. - http://www.edreams.it/; OY SRG Finland A.B. - http://www.gotogate.it/), operating as online travel agencies and comparators, offering to customers a wide range of discounts on travel services, including flights and accommodations. The authority has judged the conducts held by the companies as unfair commercial practices and sanctioned them, in accordance with their individual incomes, for a collective amount of more than 4 million Euro.

The enquiry was prompted by many complaints, coming from consumer associations and arising from the 2016 “Privacy sweep”, a general assessment conducted by the European Privacy authorities upon more than 300 travel services comparators web sites.

The six companies adopted similar practices on their web sites: in particular, lack of transparency or omission of information regarding the identity of the professionals or their role within the transaction, omission of information regarding the discounts and computation criteria, additional charges based on the credit card used, omission of email address or indication of the geographical location of the company, special fees for after-sales customer helpline.

  • The omission or lack of transparency, related to information regarding their identity, the nature of the service provided and the extent of their liability, affects negatively the customer during the after-sales phase: the customer is left unsure about the identity of the subject to contact, should he wish to modify or cancel his purchase, request a refund or present a complaint. According to art. 20 and 22 of the Italian Legislative Decree September 6th 2005, n. 206 (also known as “Consumer Code”), as modified by the Legislative Decree August 2nd 2007, n. 146, which implements the 2005/29/CE Directive on Unfair commercial practices, this conduct is considered as an unfair commercial practice and, specifically, a misleading omission. The professional, in fact, should act with the due diligence and should always provide, in a clear fashion, all the information necessary for the customer, in order to make a conscious commercial decision.
  • The same can be said about the omission of any information regarding the discounts and the criteria behind their calculation: discounts play a significant role in the choice of consumers and they can heavily influence their commercial behavior. For this reason, online travel agencies have to abide to an obligation of clarity and comprehensiveness of the information, specifically regarding the source and justification of the discount.
  • The companies displayed on their web sites a credit card surcharge, depending on the chosen method of payment (i.e. on the type of credit card chosen at checkout). Only at that moment, the customer was presented with the total price, associated with the payment through a certain credit card. In case of a choice of credit card different from the one prompted by default (WIDIBA Maestro; Carta AGOS / eDream; Visa Entropay) the customer was charged an additional fee, thus raising the original cost of the service. After June 13th 2014, according to art. 62 of the Consumer Code, professionals cannot surcharge customers depending on their method of payment: as noted by the AGCM, had the company shown, on the site, the maximum price related to a certain credit card as default reference, leaving the choice to the customer to select a different method of payment and lower the cost, this could have been, instead, qualified as a “discount” and not a “surcharge”. This hypothetical discount could be held fair, under art. 3 of Legislative Decree n. 11/2010, mentioned by art. 62 itself, which implements the 2007/64/CE Directive on payment services within the internal market: said article, in fact, allows the adoption of discounts related to the use of a certain method of payment.
  • The omission of the email address or the geographical location of the professional is in contrast with art. 49 of the Code, which requires the professional to provide the customer, in case of contracts concluded at a distance or made off-premises, with a wide range of information and, firstly, the main features of the products or the services, the identity of the professional and the geographical location, phone number, fax number and email address when available.
  • Finally, many of the companies subject to the relevant proceedings charged additional fees to the customers for the use of their after-sales helpline: said practice is very clearly forbidden by art. 64 of the Code, which states that the customer, whenever in need to contact the professional regarding the concluded contract, cannot be required to pay more than the base fee.

This is only the last of a series of initiatives taken by AGCM to foster fairness and transparency of online travel agents, that is to say one of the first sectors to be disrupted by the raise of the web economy and digital technologies