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Airline Web sites told to improve or be closed

BRUSSELS (Reuters) - Over 200 European Web sites selling airline tickets, including many run by leading airlines, mislead consumers and will be shut down if they fail to improve, the European Union’s consumer chief said on Wednesday.

EU Consumer Protection Commissioner Meglena Kuneva addresses a news conference at the European Commission headquarters in Brussels, November 14, 2007. More than 200 European Web sites selling airline tickets, including many run by leading airlines, are misleading to consumers and will be shut down if they do not improve, the European Union's consumer chief said on Wednesday. REUTERS/Francois Lenoir

Consumer Protection Commissioner Meglena Kuneva gave airlines such as Ryanair RYA.I and the owners of the other travel Web sites four months to "get their act together" or face possible closure of their sites.

The order followed the publication of results from an investigation by Brussels into misleading advertising and unfair practices on airline ticket selling Web sites across the 27-member bloc and Norway. The probe found Web sites with unfair pricing, hidden charges and terms and conditions not translated properly.

“We discovered that about 50 percent of airline ticket selling Web sites are currently letting Europe’s consumers down,” Kuneva told a news conference.

The EU’s executive European Commission said possible sanctions included fines or the closure of Web sites.

Web sites are critical for the EU airline travel industry, which Commission figures show caters to over 700 million passengers per year.

“They will be closed down, I will shut them down if they do not improve and I will also take infringement proceedings if necessary against countries which do not do their duty,” Kuneva said.

If a country fails to implement EU laws fully, the EU executive may take legal action that can end up before the European Court of Justice -- Europe’s highest court.

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NAME AND SHAME

The EU executive intends to “name and shame companies concerned” in four months’ time, Kuneva said.

The Association of European Airlines, which represents major carriers such as British Airways BAY.L and Lufthansa LHAG.DE, said the "vast majority" of its members complied with EU consumer regulations.

“At last everybody will be forced to advertise their prices in the same way,” AEA spokeswoman Francoise Humbert said.

Kuneva added that she would carry out three further inquiries in other sectors next year and would announce the areas to be investigated by the end of this year.

European consumer organisation BEUC welcomed Kuneva’s actions.

“We hope it will be the first of many. We will see now whether this will be enough to end the current abuses,” BEUC Director Jim Murray said.

Last month, Spain’s consumer rights watchdog said it had found misleading information in seven out of 12 airline ticket Web sites including Ryanair. A Commission source told Reuters Europe’s biggest low-cost airline “was on the radar”.

The Spanish authorities also found faults with Spanish carriers Vueling VULG.MC, Iberia IBLA.MC and Spainair.

“Ryanair hasn’t been contacted by the EU Commission as part of this alleged investigation but we would welcome any proposals by the Commission to force Europe’s high fare airlines to match Ryanair’s fares,” Ryanair’s head of communications, Peter Sherrard, said in a statement on Tuesday.

British Airways and easyJet EZJ.L said they were unaware of having broken any rules or being on any list.

The Finnish consumer watchdog said it had reviewed 30 Web sites and found all Finnish airlines to be offenders. It said it had written to companies including Finnair FIA1S.HE and Blue1, a Finnish subsidiary of SAS SAS.ST.

The Brussels probe took place in 15 EU states and Norway from September 24 to 28. Of the 446 Web sites investigated, 226 “were flagged as in some way not respecting consumer protection law”, the report said.

Belgium had the worst number of incidents, with 46 of 48 Web sites investigated found to be at fault. Of the 20 Web sites probed in Austria, none was found to break EU consumer rules.

Additional reporting by Jeff Mason in Strasbourg; Editing by Dale Hudson and Erica Billingham

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