British Airways was accused of imposing unfair "stealth charges" on customers yesterday. The national flag carrier revealed that it intended to begin charging an internet booking fee on all tickets bought on its website.
The fee, which is likely to be about £1 per ticket, follows a threat of legal action from travel agents who claim they are being unfairly undercut by BA's direct online sales.
The airline already adds a fuel surcharge and security fee to all its tickets, in addition to taxes and a £15 levy on telephone bookings.
Its new initiative was greeted with scorn by rival carriers. Ray Webster, chief executive of easyJet, said it was "lunacy".
"Customers should be rewarded for using the cheapest available distribution channel, not penalised," he said.
On BA's website yesterday, a £25 return fare between London and Paris cost £68.50 after taxes and charges were included. The Internet booking fee will be imposed from May.
BA's Internet fee follows a showdown with travel agents who are furious about a decision by the airline to axe the 1% commission they earned on flights sold in their high-street holiday shops - which amounted to £13m annually.
Agents accused the airline of breach of contract, pointing out that an agreement with the international airlines' association, Iata, entitled them to "remuneration" for selling seats on its member carriers.
By imposing a booking fee on Internet sales, BA said it was creating a price differential that would allow travel agents to continue offering tickets at a competitive price.
BA's general manager for UK agency and consumer sales, Ian Heywood, insisted that the Internet booking charge would not necessarily mean higher prices. "We want to drive more business online so it is imperative that we remain competitive.
"Don't assume that our prices will go up as a result of this," he said.
The balance of BA's sales has shifted dramatically over the last decade. Travel agents, which once sold nearly all of the airline's tickets, still sell 70% of long-haul tickets but only account for half of short-haul bookings.
Travel agents have struggled to cope with the growth of independent travel and low-cost airlines. Abta, which represents 80% of Britain's travel agents, said its membership had fallen from 2,771 agents to 1,805 over the last 10 years.
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