Fuel surcharge outrage

By | October 21st, 2006

Have the travel industry’s watchdogs slumbered off once again? Are the travel bloggers who are stumbling all over themselves to document every airline, cruise and hotel non-trend missing the real story?

Reader Janice Hough — and others like her, I’m sure — want to know. Hough, a travel agent, took me to task for missing a big story this week.

And you know what? I agree with her.

At issue: fuel surcharges.

“Now that gas is back under $3 a gallon, we should start seeing a rollback in those huge fuel surcharges,” she wrote. “Where’s your rant?”

Right here, Janice:

The most common fuel surcharges are being imposed by airlines. And jet fuel prices have been on the decline. The spot price of a gallon of New York Harbor kerosene jet fuel has dropped from $2.10 a gallon in April to $1.85 in September, according to the U.S. government’s Energy Information Administration.

Several airlines, including Qantas, Virgin Atlantic and Lufthansa, recently reduced their fuel surcharges in response. But most airlines have been slow to react, partially because they’re uncertain if fuel prices will rise again, and partially because, well, they like the extra money.

Here’s the thing. I’ve taken airlines to task about their fuel surcharges in the past. I wrote up an op-ed column back in 2002 denouncing the surcharges, calling for them to either scrap the fees or tell us what the money is really being used for.

The article ran in a few smaller papers, but was otherwise ignored.

The public reaction to the recent fuel surcharge-price fixing row, which earlier this month led to the resignation of two top British Airways officials, is also telling.

Related story:   Airline considers $10 surcharge for baby-free seating, priority disembarking

Travelers I spoke with didn’t seem to care. And when I asked readers of Elliott’s E-Mail, my free weekly travel newsletter, to sound off about the price-fixing scandal, few bothered to.

I personally believe that fuel surcharges are fundamentally dishonest. You factor the cost of flying into the price of your tickets. Period.

If your cost of doing business rises — whether it’s higher insurance costs, rents, or fuel — you just suck it up. That’s how it’s done everywhere else. Why should airlines be exempt?

Passengers have every right to be outraged.

They should be outraged.

But they aren’t.

Why? Maybe it’s because they’re still getting a bargain on an airline ticket. It could also be because they’re just too tired to complain, after six years of ridiculous surcharges and an air travel experience that often rivals a night in solitary at Guantanamo Bay.

Still, I think the airlines will back down on their surcharges only when travelers express their disapproval. I hope they do — soon.

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