15 July 2010

Devil's in the Detail

When I see an advert for a product and its associated wow-factor price tag, it's the pessimist in me that thinks "Yeah, sure!" I'm willing to believe that, on occasion, if you're willing to run the gauntlet laid down by the company in question, give your details for spam mail ad infinitum and even then only be guaranteed a slightly better than average chance of acquiring said product for the amazing price, you might consider doing it (some people love filling out forms and receiving post), but on the whole you're on a road to nowhere other than hassle.

So, when Ryanair advertised flights to either Gothenberg or Dusseldorf for £10 one-way, subject to availability and optional fees, I just knew that it would be virtually impossible to be charged £10 for such a fare - even if I spent hours searching for this Holy Grail.

I've learned that some airlines charge you just for paying by card - be it debit or credit - and some charge you to print out your boarding pass when there is no alternative manner of boarding pass acquisition. The airlines that charge some or all of these add-ons are the no frills brigade, who undoubtedly plug a gap in the market (m'colleague and I flew with easyJet to Gibraltar in March without problem). Savvy frequent flyers will know all too well that Ryanair charge to the 'mandatory optional' fee to print out your boarding pass and then, along with easyJet, charge per kilo for baggage etc.

Which is why no human complained to the Advertising Standards Agency (ADA) about two national newspaper ads Ryanair made for its £10 Gothenberg/Dusseldorf flights. The complaint was made by its corporate rival, easyJet.

We all know that you won't get the flight for a tenner, but put up with the sundries because the total price is still about 300% cheaper than British Airways. Ryanair's Achilles heel, however, was not including the word 'from' in their one-liner. Had they placed "fare FROM £10 one-way", subject to virtually anything they liked etc., the ASA would have ruled in their favour. Without 'from', easyJet's lawyers successfully argued that £10 was likely to be regarded as a set price for flights between these points. It's similar to Virgin Trains' failed court case against Southern over whether a train 'calls' at a station upon 'terminating' there.

Ironically, Ryanair said they'd reduced some of their Gothenberg/Dusseldorf flights further to £5, and admitted their dates of availability ran from 1 January to 28 February earlier this year. Now, if they'd included this, along with the word 'from', easyJet would have been placated and the customer would know whether it was worth him searching for fares (hardly, if travel was for April, for example).

Slightly better is the UK coach industry, where First's Greyhound, Stagecoach's Megabus (and certain Citylink routes - with ComfortDelGro) and National Express all use yield management to set incredibly low fares on their respective services. These £1 headliners do genuinely appear reasonably regularly. Only NX have no compulsory add-on by way of a transaction fee, though only for debit card holders.

Sensibly, all fares are "FROM £1" (Ryanair take note!), so each's competition cannot cry foul. We've pondered before the requirement for the number of fares to be offered at £1. I've booked tickets online with one of the above coach operators seconds after seats have been released and £5 has been the minimum - from which I'd infer that no fares of £1 are on offer on that journey.

The psyche's the same though: we know the likelihood of a £1 Greyhound fare/£10 Ryanair fare is as scarce as rocking horse manure, but are willing to purchase a ticket one notch or two higher as we know this still represents good or excellent value for money. It could be argued these corporate bodies are limiting such offers in future with their complaints. As it turns out, Ryanair's omitted 'from' allowed them to offer £5 fares - something they wouldn't have otherwise been able to do. The ASA's insistance of 'from' being added to make their claim less confusing will prevent fares from a fiver in the future.

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