Does it always pay to buy flights in a sale?
If you're heading off on holiday this Easter, chances are you may have booked a flight with British Airways, Thomas Cook, easyJet or Qatar Airways and thought you'd bagged a great deal. That's because these airlines all had recent sales.
But before you get too smug, we've unearthed some very sneaky tactics which could mean that your savings might not be as good as you think. Rebecca Wilcox reports.
You don't have to be an expert in all things linguistics but when you see the word "Sale" you expect that to mean "lower than usual prices for a limited period" in which you can bag yourself a bargain. Or to put it another way... the prices will be cheaper during the sale than before or after. But when it comes to some of our best known airlines, that's not always the case.
In January, Graham Wright booked two April flights to St Petersburg in the British Airways "Goodbye Winter" sale, for his wife's birthday. Graham knew the sale was on and saw that he could book the trip for a total of £580, so rushed to book as the website told him there were only five seats left at that price. Graham told us that he assumed that once the sale ended the prices would increase. But when Graham went up to upgrade his seats to make the trip a bit more special, he noticed that the flights were £200 cheaper and despite the sale having since ended. Graham told us he felt angry and duped into buying the seats.
Consumer Law expert Deborah Parry told us: "BA may be contravening the Consumer Protection from Unfair Trading Regulations in that it is falsely suggesting that a product is only available at a reduced price for a limited period, so that it encourages the consumer to take an immediate decision to purchase rather than reflecting properly on the transaction."
We've found other airlines potentially committing similar breaches, like Thomas Cook. Sharon Jackson monitored the price of her flights to Turkey throughout its sale in October. On the very day that sale ended, she bagged herself a flight for £201, only to discover that less than 24 hours later... a seat for the same flight was more than £50 cheaper!
But that's nothing compared to what Nick Waldock experienced with Qatar Airways when he booked through their '3 Day Global Sale last year. Nick wanted to book flights to Colombo as he planned to watch England's test match in Sri Lanka in March this year. Before the sale started the prices were £510; on the first day of the sale, Nick expected the price to drop but in fact they had gone up to £573. The price remained the same during the sale and fearing the flight prices would increase once the sale ended, Nick booked on the last day of the sale. But much to Nick's frustration, hours after the sale ended, he saw the price dropped to £495. Nick told us he felt the promotion has misled consumers and he wanted an explanation. Sadly Qatar Airways didn't provide one, they simply replied to Nick stating that, "Fares are subject to change without prior notice depending on the seat availability."
But should they? Deborah's Parry explains: "The airline's claim that the price may fluctuate due to supply and demand is not applicable here. If demand has gone up during the sale then by the end of the sale there will be fewer seats available and so logically the price ought to go up even higher after the sale, in fact the price came down after the sale.
To find out how volatile flight prices can be, we monitored twenty flights in the easyJet Leap year sale in February. The message given by the ad was clear. 'Get in early as prices may rise during the sale period, and book before midnight on Wednesday' when the sale ends. Eighteen flights did go down after the sale, leaving us with two that didn't.
It's certainly confusing and these airlines know it. When they advertise a sale price, they don't tell you what the previous price was so how are you supposed to know if you're getting a good deal or not?
According to Deborah Parry, failing to give you that previous price is potentially a breach of the law: "Breach of Regulation 6 can lead to administrative sanctions being taken or even a prosecution for a criminal offense. There is no reason at all for airline ticket sellers not to have to comply with these provisions, they apply to traders in general and airlines should comply with the requirements."
A Qatar Airways spokesperson said:
Qatar Airways is very conscious of the importance of consumer clarity when running promotional campaigns and of our responsibility, under UK and European best practice, in ensuring that all promotional activity is clear, fair and easily understood.
We were therefore concerned to hear of Mr. Waldock's complaint and appreciate the opportunity to clarify any confusion caused during his booking process.
We include the fare information with this correspondence to assist with our explanation of the circumstances that have led to Mr. Waldock's complaint.
The fare offers referred to on 31 August and the 4 September were applicable to the UK market only and are based on our UK pricing structure, which is determined specifically in alignment with UK market forces. These were included in a UK promotion and as such were found in the 'London Special Offers' section of the Qatar Airways website.
To give perspective on the size of the UK campaign, starting 4th September, there were only 23 destinations on offer from London Heathrow and 19 destinations from Manchester, giving 42 possible origin and destination options.
This is in stark contrast to the many hundred origin and destination combinations being offered during the global sale. The fare during this three-day sale, which ran from 1-3 September, was indeed higher than that offered during the UK-led promotions in August and September. This is due to the pricing of the global three-day sale, where a percentage discount is offered from the year-round fare - referred to as 'base airfare' in the terms and conditions.
This differs to the UK-led activity, which is proposed and submitted by the UK pricing team, and following benchmarking against UK market prices, which often results in more aggressive pricing.
As any commercial airline, we continue to run tactical campaigns promoting our flight offers from the UK. However, the UK market also participates in global sales that run across several markets. We are sorry that this was not outlined to Mr. Waldock before now but hope that this explanation has helped to clarify the circumstances that dictated his fares.
A British Airways spokesperson said:
British Airways is mindful of its obligations under advertising and marketing laws and takes them very seriously.
The aviation market is extremely competitive and dynamic and we have to react quickly to the market in order to ensure we are offering our customers competitive prices.
Mr Wright bought a discounted flight in a promotion that, unfortunately, was subsequently available at a lower price after the promotional period ended. Despite our original intention to revert back to a higher price, declining demand and aggressive pricing by competitors meant that, in order to remain competitive in the marketplace, we maintained a lower price for the flight.
We understand Mr Wright's frustration and we apologise for any disappointment he experienced. However, this was an isolated incident and certainly not an attempt to mislead the customer.
An easyJet spokesperson said:
"easyJet is committed to offering great value fares in a clear and transparent way. Our leap year sale cut seat prices by up to 20% between 24 and 29th February. Nearly 200,000 customers booked with us saving a total of £2.7M on our usual prices.
"In general, easyJet flight prices start low and then increase. Different batches of seats are sold at different prices. We sell the cheapest seats first and once sold out, we sell the next cheapest batch. Usually this means flights get more expensive as it gets closer to take off. However, sometimes, if demand is not as strong as predicted, our dynamic pricing system may reduce fares to encourage sales.
When we run a promotional sale, we simply discount all prices within the defined period. The way we and our system manage fares doesn't change which means that prices will still go up as the cheapest seats are sold. The only difference is that all seat prices are discounted.
"After the leap year sale, a very small number of our flights hadn't performed as well as expected. Our system responded by reducing the prices on those flights. In practice, this meant that less than 5% of our customers paid more in the sale than they would have if they bought after - on average by £4 per seat. This was unintended and unfortunate and clearly had we have known, we would have either promoted an extension to the sale or manually overridden the system. We do have a price guarantee that covers customers in the rare event that this happens, but accept that not all customers may spot this.
"easyJet is committed to doing the right thing for our customers. We know our dynamic pricing system delivers many of the best flight deals a customer can buy. However, we also see the point being made by Watchdog around how this works after a promotion finishes. We have therefore e-mailed all the customers affected by this issue and will be refunding them the difference between the price paid and the price the day after the promotion concluded where that was cheaper. We're processing the emails now and aim to get them all out by noon, Thursday 5 April.
"easyJet's aim is to be fair and transparent with our customers so if we were to run such a promotion again we would ensure this issue is completely addressed."
Commenting on Mrs Jackson's flythomascook.com booking in October 2011, a Thomas Cook spokesperson said:
"At the time of advertising and during a sale, our prices are reduced from the price previously available - but flight prices always remain fluid and can go up or down at any time depending on the number of seats remaining and the departure date. This is called fluid pricing and is how most airlines price flights. In Mrs Jackson's case, when the sale finished, the price automatically reduced due to the number of seats left. This is an exceptional case, but as a gesture of goodwill we refunded the difference and provided in-flight meals free of charge."
- Euro120 was refunded to meet the price difference on 25th October in 2011
- In-flight Meals have been provided for the party
- Flythomascook offered a gesture of goodwill due to the specific circumstances in Mrs Jackson's case, which were not anticipated when the sale period ended