The truth about those controversial $10 holiday airfare charges

by Christopher Elliott on September 29, 2009

xmasLast week, several airlines added a $10 “miscellaneous” charge for flights on on Nov. 29, Jan. 2 and 3. — those are the peak travel days after Thanksgiving and New Year’s Day. The news sent the travel blogosphere into something of a frenzy. My colleague Janice Hough this morning predicted the “holiday surcharge” was only the beginning of a new fee orgy.

Rather than devote an entire post to criticizing the airline industry for yet another poorly-conceived idea, I thought it would be a good idea to ask the Transportation Department, which regulates a significant part of the airline industry, what it makes of the new fees.

Here’s the exchange between department spokesman Bill Mosley and me:

What is your department’s understanding of these new fees?

The Department does not have the authority to regulate the fares airlines charge, but does ensure that consumers are not misled in how fares are advertised.

In 2001, your department said airlines and travel agencies were required to quote a ticket price that includes fees such as fuel surcharges. Does that ruling apply to these new fees in any way?

Yes. According to media reports, these charges are assessed by the airlines themselves for peak period travel and, accordingly, they must be included in the advertised airfare.

Was the Transportation Department consulted by any of these airlines, notably American Airlines, before these fees were added last week?

Airlines are not required to consult the Department about fares or fees.

What are you saying to air travelers who are concerned about this new fee?

Consumers should shop around and determine which carrier has a fare that best suits their individual needs. Consumers can learn more about their rights at airconsumer.dot.gov

In other words, these new fees were added to a part of the fare that is unregulated by the government. The only thing the DOT can do is regulate how the fare is advertised and displayed, to prevent travelers from being deceived. Other than that, the surcharges are completely legal.

I think there are many readers who will see this as a less-than-upfront fare increase. Does it cost more to operate a flight just after a major holiday? Probably not, but these carriers are going to help themselves to more of your money, anyway.

The honest thing to do would be to raise fares — not add a “holiday surcharge.” But what do I know?

(Photo: dnkbdotcom/Flickr Creative Commons)

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  • Robert

    Hi Chris
    Next time you might ask how much the Government loses in taxes when these “fees” are added but not included in the fare. I believe that it is absolutely intentional on the part of airlines to not include fees as part of the fare so as to avoid having to charge the tax. If there were a $10.00 increase and the increase was part of the fare then the airline would get $9.30 and the Governement would get $0.70 to support our aging air transportation infrastructure. Airlines have figured out how they can keep the entire $10.00 and the Government get nothing. It seems shortsighted to me since when the air traffic control system fails (or slows down) due to loss of revenue then airlines as well as passengers will suffer. Oh – I forgot – Airlines will just blame the Governemt and not take any responsibility for manipulating the fares. I have an idea – why not just make the enitre cost of an airline ticket a fee and reduce the fare to $0.00?

  • Graham

    What’s the difference between a holiday surcharge and a high season fare?

  • MCG

    If other businesses all raise prices by the same amount and at the same time, it is called collusion and anti-trust laws apply. Why not ask the Transportation Dept. official why these laws do not apply to airlines?

  • Hop

    This is a peak season fare. Price is a device for rationing limited capacity. Hotel rates go up around Super Bowl time in the Super Bowl host city. Same thing. But it should be an increase (if brief) in fare so the tax gets paid.

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