When my client had to cancel an intra-Africa ticket because of a canceled business meeting, she expected it to be nonrefundable. And it was, but Kenya Airways, like many international airlines, does allow passengers to get tax refunds.

And since out of a $648 ticket, $209 showed as the combined tax total, that looked to be a significant amount of money to get back. In theory.


Translation into English: The fuel surcharges, which are listed as taxes — YQ and YR — are also nonrefundable.

So she only got back about $70 on the ticket.

And had our agency refunded all the taxes and fees, including the fuel surcharge, Kenya Airways would have billed us, quickly.

But if you don’t fly on a plane, presumably they don’t need to use fuel for you. So what’s the point? The point, once again, is because they can. And, because everyone is doing it.

Fuel surcharges are repugnant. Airlines first introduced them in 2003 in response to a spike in oil prices. However, they have kept them for years. Now, whatever happens to the price of oil, the fuel surcharges always increase. The original surcharges were trivial; I remember $10 with United Airlines and then a $5 increase — back when oil prices were $40 a barrel.

Now oil is around $100 a barrel, but as a travel agent looking at a fare display for a September roundtrip from San Francisco to London, I see fares starting under $400. The fuel surcharge, however, is $458. (About double that in business class.) “Amazingly,” it’s the identical surcharge for, say, a nonstop on United, and a connecting flight on Air Canada via Toronto and on British Air and American Airlines via Chicago, although the distances vary by several hundred miles.

Some people may think it doesn’t matter how airlines break down the fare, but with refund issues it clearly does matter. It also matters sometimes with mileage tickets — many airlines charge the fuel surcharge even on “free” tickets.

It’s also very confusing with the new mileage program rules that require a certain dollar amount of revenue for elite status. What counts, what doesn’t?

In addition, fuel surcharges are non-discountable. This affects not only children’s fares and corporate discounts, but travel agency and tour operator deals for commissionable or bulk fares. So, in the end, the consumer pays more.

If airlines did have to refund all taxes and fees when a passenger doesn’t travel, my guess is that fuel surcharges would suddenly be added into the ticket price pretty quickly.

But for now, from an airline perspective, these surcharges are pure gold, unrefundable gold. They don’t have to explain fuel surcharges, they don’t have to refund them, and even if oil prices suddenly fell by half overnight, they don’t have to reduce them.

Is it time to put an end to nonrefundable fuel surcharges?

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