Overtaxed on US Airways

by Christopher Elliott on November 17, 2003

Q: I was traveling on US Airways from London to Philadelphia on a return journey which had originated in Munich. For both flights, I upgraded to Envoy class using my frequent flier miles. I reconfirmed the upgrade last year.

At check-in in London, I was told that each of us had to pay a tax of 20 British pounds – an “upgrade tax” which US Airways states they can no longer absorb, having recently emerged from bankruptcy.

No one ever advised of such a tax, either at reservations time, or when we confirmed the ticket, or at check-in. Can you tell me what’s going on?

-- Gregory McGann

A: Taxes are an inevitable part of the travel experience. If you don’t believe me, take a look at the extras on your plane ticket – it’s loaded with fees, many of which are imposed by the government.

But being broadsided by a surprise charge is no fun, especially when you’re cashing in miles.

Isn’t the whole point of using your points that you’re being rewarded for your loyalty? Having to pay for something that you’ve already earned makes no sense to me. (Apparently it does to Air Canada, though, which starting next year is charging customers $25 to turn their miles into tickets.)

So what’s going on with US Airways? I asked Amy Kudwa to look into your case. She told me the tax in question is called the Air Passenger Duty, and is levied by the British government. US Airways has never absorbed the fee, she added, so this has nothing to do with its recent bankruptcy. “Someone should have told [Mr. McGann] about the charge when he booked the ticket,” she said.

Kudwa admitted that there had been a lapse in customer service and added, “It’s certainly something that we appreciate you bringing to our attention.”

I contacted you again after hearing from US Airways. In a follow-up conversation, you told me the ticket agents you spoke with in London “seemed to feel the fee was a relatively new occurrence.”

In order to better understand why you weren’t told about the tax, it may help to put your experience into context. US Airways is an airline in chaos. Since it emerged from bankruptcy earlier this year, it’s been fighting a losing battle to cut costs and return to profitability. Many of its employees are despondent – and distracted.

In an earlier column, I suggested that breakdowns in customer service were reason enough to wish the airline would go under.

However, after that story appeared, I had the opportunity to speak with many US Airways employees and I came to understand that my frustration was misdirected. The airline workers aren’t the problem. In fact, they are victims, too – victims of a changing airline industry and of a bumbling management team.

I regret making such hurtful statements about a good group of people.

Gregory, if you’re looking for someone to blame, I wouldn’t zero in on the British government, or even the phone agents who neglected to tell you about the tax. Instead, focus your rage on the people calling the shots at US Airways, who seem to be running a once-great airline into the ground.

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