Airline fuel surcharges increase the cost of your trips, but are they fair? Airlines have been levying fuel surcharges since 2004, at a time when oil costs had spiked northwards of $40 a barrel (back when that was expensive!), and continue to do so today.
Recent inflation in oil costs means transportation, whether in cars or in the air, is more expensive. And in theory, these fuel surcharges are simply the airlines passing along some of the increased operating costs onto their passengers.
But we’ve noticed something a little bit odd. What should be a simple calculation, based largely on flight distance, isn’t always so transparent. Though it’s logical to assume “shorter flights equal smaller fuel surcharge, and longer flights get a bigger one,” it seems that isn’t always the case!
Air Tahiti Nui’s mysterious fuel surcharge
In 2023, Air Tahiti Nui sent a message to industry professionals, alerting them to an increase in fuel surcharges as of March 1, 2023. In the climate of expensive oil, at first glance this seems reasonable. After all, Air Tahiti Nui operates mostly long haul flights. But looking closer, the numbers raise some questions.
For flights from Los Angeles International Airport (LAX) to Paris’ Charles De Gaulle Airport (CDG), the fuel surcharge increase is $80. This, for a flight of 5,656 miles translates to about 1.4 cents per mile. On the other hand, for flights from Los Angeles International Airport (LAX) to Papeete (French Polynesia) Tahiti, the fuel surcharge increase is $20. The flight distance between Los Angeles and Papeete is 4,117 miles which translates to about 0.5 cents per mile. So, what gives?
Airline fuel surcharges aren’t proportional
Back when surcharges were new, the whole idea was to offset some of the airlines’ increased costs due to the oil pricing. But while oil prices have risen slightly, some fuel surcharges have increased exponentially. In fact, some transatlantic flights (like London to New York on one major carrier) show a surcharge increase 8 times more expensive than they were in 2004. Eight times more expensive!
Airline fuel surcharges aren’t regulated
That’s right. There’s no government regulation (at the moment) for airline fuel surcharges, though that may be about to change. In recent months, the federal government has promised a crackdown on what it’s calling “junk fees” – those excessive, not always understandable fees that consumers have to pay as a price of booking some services. It’s not only air fuel surcharges undergoing scrutiny in this department. Hotel and resort fees are also under the microscope.
So why do airlines impose fuel surcharges?
You may have already guessed the answer. It’s to make more money! And though the airlines deny this fact- the evidence suggests otherwise. After all, if it isn’t to make more money, why do the airlines continue to levy fuel surcharges, long after a surge in oil prices goes away. Historically, after a period of high oil pricing stabilizes, some airlines simply change the “fuel surcharge” to a “surcharge.”
The good news for travelers, is that not all airlines charge them, and even among those that do – the fuel surcharge range is varied and wide.
Which airlines charge fuel surcharges and which do not?
What most U.S. travelers need to know is that domestic flights are not usually levied fuel surcharges. On the other hand, a lot of international air carriers do charge significant fuel surcharges. British Airways has some of the biggest. We won’t delineate each and every airline who imposes these surcharges here, mainly because the charges can vary widely by route.
It is worth noting that United Airlines doesn’t impose any fuel charges, on any of its own flights or those of its partner/Star Alliance flights.
What does it mean to me as a traveler?
It’s something to look out for, especially when some international flights can be impacted by hundreds of dollars. When you book flights with loyalty program points, fuel surcharges still apply and can cut the value and return you get from your available points.
It’s a good idea to have a complete picture of what’s included with your ticket, and given the cost of fuel surcharges – one strategy to combat those costs is to book flights in the Prime Booking Window to save on your next trip.