Teletext Holidays has been partially sanctioned for misleading consumers over the pricing of limited availability package holidays.
The advertising watchdog stepped in after receiving three complaints from consumers over deals to Spain in February and April from as low as £158 per person promoted on the teletextholidays.co.uk website.
They had been unable to buy the holidays at the listed rates and challenged whether the price claims could be substantiated.
However, Teletext Holidays provided evidence to the Advertising Standards Authority to show that the three packages had been sold at the prices advertised.
Truly Travel, trading as Teletext Holidays, told the ASA it offered about 100 billion holiday combinations at any given time, taking into account the possible permutations of dates, flights and hotels, and as a result the removal process was not simple.
There were many different flights from many different departure airports on a variety of different dates which may have been invalidated by the unavailability of the accommodation at that price. In simple cases the removal could be completed in two hours, but could take longer.
Teletext Holidays said it was aware that the Committee of Advertising Practice (CAP) code required it to keep evidence of the accuracy of marketing claims, including prices.
However, given the 100 billion combinations, and the fact they were updated several times a day by airlines and every day by accommodation providers, it could not keep an audit trail for a long period of time.
The company believed it would take “quite extraordinary” computer functionality to keep all that information for months or longer.
It provided an explanation of flight and accommodation data system from data processing provider Tecnologia Turistica Sistemas y Servicios (TTSS), which collated both flight and accommodation data. The accommodation data cache was updated daily, whereas flight data was in some cases updated more frequently.
TTSS said it processed approximately one billion accommodation records and 410 million flight records daily but it was not possible to serve the hundreds of thousands of daily visitors using “live” availability across multiple airlines, bed banks and hotels within a reasonable period.
By using cache technology a visitor could see results within seconds whereas using live technology a visitor may not see results for 30 to 60 seconds and even then, a live connection could time out, producing no results or partial results.
Visitors expected to see results within five seconds and if web pages took longer to load were more likely to abandon their search.
If a customer was presented a particular price it was possible that other people could be looking at the offer at the same time. If any of them clicked to book the holiday a fraction of a second faster, the last few seats could already be taken by the time the first customer clicked to book.
Using live technology could flood suppliers’ own server infrastructure, and even on an airline’s own website which allowed for live availability it was possible to run into that situation, which could result in the price increasing for the customer or no more seats remaining.
TTSS said it was not feasible to substantiate any specific price stated in an ad, given the vast amount of ever changing data.
However, it said that because data was transferred directly from the providers of the different elements of the holiday, and then on to the travel company, the price shown would have been the up-to-date price at the time it was uploaded.
Upholding the complaints in part, the ASA ruled: “The ads must not appear again in the forms complained about.
“We told Truly Travel trading as Teletext Holidays to ensure that, where holiday prices were subject to change and had limited availability, that was made clear in a prominent statement, and that the date of the last update was also made clear.
“They should also ensure that such prices were described as ‘from’ prices.”
In explanation, ASA said: “Because we considered consumers would understand the packages were available to purchase at the listed prices and there was no prominent information which managed the expectation that those prices were achievable if website visitors called to request a current live price, we concluded that the ads were likely to mislead consumers.
“Notwithstanding that we considered the presentation of the price was misleading.
“We also looked at whether Teletext Holidays had substantiated that the holidays had been available for purchase at the listed prices at the point of the most recent update, and whether they had taken adequate action to withdraw the ad once those prices were no longer available.
“We acknowledged the advertiser’s explanation that it was not feasible to retain pricing data months after a particular price was advertised to a consumer.
“However, we considered that in the absence of such documentary evidence, the advertiser must provide alternative substantiation adequate to demonstrate that the holidays were available to purchase at the prices listed at the times the three different packages were seen.
“We understood that due to the systems involved in updating prices on Teletext Holiday’s website, the prices provided by flight and accommodation providers to Teletext Holidays via TTSS were up-to-date, accurate and available at the time they were provided.
“Furthermore, Teletext Holidays provided invoices showing that each of the holidays had been sold at the prices listed on the same days that the listings were seen.
“On that basis we considered that we had seen substantiation to demonstrate that the prices were accurate and achievable when they had last been updated.
“We noted the CAP guidance stated travel advertisers working with third-party content were unlikely to be able to monitor real time availability of flights or accommodation, meaning fares or rates may not have been available at the stated price by the time consumers attempted to make a purchase.
“We considered that by undertaking systematic daily price updates Teletext had met the requirements for monitoring stocks when promoting third-party holiday packages in their space.
“We further understood that Teletext Holidays had engaged in a rapid removal process when they became aware that prices were no longer available.
“We considered that the steps taken by Teletext Holidays to withdraw the advertised price when they became aware that they were no longer available was sufficient.
“However, for the reasons outlined above, we nonetheless considered that the ads were misleading and breached the code.”