Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Oil drops, fuel charge stays the same

For some time, I have been pointing out the various reductions in service, increased fees, and other changes that U.S. airlines have been making. $25 for checking a second bag led the way. $15 for checking a first bag followed. U.S. Airways charges $2 for soda on domestic flights. A large number of airlines have added fees to redeem frequent flyer miles for tickets. And so on.

In each case, I have cautioned you as passengers that you should not take these changes lightly. Yes, fuel prices are up since 2006; yes, the airlines have been struggling with those prices. Emergency measures make sense.

But I cautioned you precisely because fee increases and cuts in service are not emergencies when made by the airlines. If people tolerate changes without complaint--and specifically, without making their disapproval known by changing airlines--then when things get better, the money saved during those tough times will not go to provide restored services; it will go to pad profits.

Maybe you didn't believe me. Even though you saw domestic meal service suspended as an "emergency" measure in 2004 and never resumed even during the 2006 boom when everyone who had $10 was starting an airline, maybe you figured this was different.

It wasn't. It isn't.

CNN reports today that, "Most carriers have imposed several increases in their fuel surcharges -- they range up to $170 per round trip in the United States and more for international flights -- on top of fare hikes." And, "although oil prices have dropped over the past few weeks, U.S. airlines have no immediate plans to reduce fuel surcharges that they tack on to the price of a ticket."

Why not? Michelle Aguayo-Shannon, a spokeswoman for Northwest Airlines Corp, says "We're happy fuel prices have come down, but they're still not in a manageable area."

I have always opposed fuel surcharges. They are deceptive by nature; how can an airline claim that the fare--ostensibly the cost that it charges to take me from Point A to Point B--has a particular cost, but then I need to pay an additional fee to cover fuel? Isn't fuel a requirement of the basic travel arrangement? If fuel is expensive, raise the fare.

But they don't because, by keeping their extra fuel costs under the heading of "surcharge," the airlines that use this deceptive practice can continue to advertise low "fares" that are meaningless.

So don't expect to see this fuel surcharge go away. As fuel prices drop, airlines will shuffle more and more of their fuel cost into these hidden fees. They'll keep the baggage fees, too. Yesterday's amenities become tomorrow's bonuses. Once a service disappears, it's gone.

No comments: