Thomson Holidays has admitted responsibility for what it says is a website error which saw its Build-Your-Own package holidays sold against incorrect insurance protection notices.
Online Terms and Conditions for the TUI-owned brand's BYO holidays indicated that products were not covered by Thomson's ATOL bond when in fact, the company says now, they were.
The error comes against an unfortunate backdrop of the ongoing war-of-words against online travel agency TravelRepublic, which won a court case against the UK's Civil Aviation Authority in November 2009 over its own decision not to ATOL-protect customers who build their own holidays.
At the time, Thomson and First Choice director of communications Christian Cull was quoted as saying:
"TravelRepublic insist they don’t sell packages, but if something looks like a duck, waddles like a duck and quacks like a duck, then it's a duck. We are incredibly disappointed that the courts have not recognised this. The ATOL system is confusing enough for consumers and we hope that those who book with Travel Republic will be made aware that their money is not financially protected in the way it is when they book with other businesses such as ourselves."
Thomson says it is unclear when the incorrect T&Cs, which mirror the controversial stance adopted by TravelRepublic, replaced the correct terms on the site, despite tests being made when the policy changed in mid-2009.
A spokesperson says the correct T&Cs will republished and an investigation is underway, adding:
"Certain software programmes have bugs that on rare occasions will revert to old copy and this may be what has happened in this case. We are investigating this further to better understand what may have happened."
At the end of May 2009, Thomson says it changed its policy so that customers who booked BYO holidays were protected under the ATOL scheme, a system which protects travellers in the event of the collapse of an operator or airline.
However, it has since emerged that an identical error occurred on sister website Holiday Hypermarket.
Thomson says at this stage it does not know why the incorrect T&Cs appeared on this site as well.
ATOL bonds are bought by package holidays operators (a scheme not replicated elsewhere such as the US, for example) but companies and consumers have found the programme unclear when a flight is bundled together with a hotel.
The mistake by Thomson, although seemingly innocent, does raise an issue of whether consumers who purchased insurance separately after reading the incorrect T&Cs online can be reimbursed.
A spokesperson says customers who may have been affected should contact them.
Meanwhile, Thomson has confirmed that it removed ATOL protection from flight-only fares on its airline ThomsonFly on 30 November 2009, just two weeks before FlyGlobeSpan went into administration, stranding thousands of passengers overseas who were also travelling without protection on flight-only tickets.