AirAsia has been fined $200,000 in the Federal Court  in Melbourne for contravening the single pricing provision of the Australian Consumer Law.

The prosecution, instigated by the ACCC, established that the trans border low fare franchise did not for almost a year display on its website some of its airfares inclusive of all taxes, duties, fees and other mandatory charges in a prominent way and as a single figure.

This looked like an A-grade deliberate attempt to screw Australian consumers, given that it is both implausible and indefensible for a company as experienced and successful as AirAsia to be ignorant of Australian law.

It is also a reminder that in many other parts of the world, bait pricing is legal, and airfares sold on-line often appear with prominent or headline fares that are totally misleading in that they do not include a range of statutory fees and charges which must be collected by airline at the moment of purchase.

They can be additionally misleading if the airline fails to prominently disclose extra charges which in some cases cannot be avoided by the passenger, such a charge for printing out your own boarding pass, and an even bigger charge at the airport if you have don’t turn up with it. The weasel words to look out for in English include ‘convenience charges’, and at times lend themselves to a Jonathan Clees type parody about charging fee fees, or Fifi’s.

This case is interesting in Australia because of the rise of opt in fees for checked luggage, pre-purchased meals, entertainment packages and so forth. At the moment it could be argued that Qantas, which includes entertainment, refreshments, and even the odd meal, in all its fares, is disadvantaged compared to those airlines which list them as extras.

The disadvantage is said to be overcome by the way in which Virgin Australia, for example, places a $ amount and symbol on its booking screens to indicate checked luggage charges. But at the point where longer haul flights on say Scoot or Jetstar or AirAsiaX come with seat only, seat with bag, seat with meals + bag and so forth, the legally displayed prominent fare isn’t directly comparable to the full service inclusive fares on Singapore Airlines, or Qantas, or Cathay Pacific to name but a few.

At some point in the future the difference between the base fare on some carriers, and the all inclusive fare on others, could get to a stage where the fare display rules need to be revisited to give some more meaningful way of assessing equivalent value.

How urgent that need might become depends on whether or not the full service carriers here start to fragment their fare calculations the way Air New Zealand does with its spectrum of fare options from ‘seat only’ to ‘the works’, all of them seated in economy.

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