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Mysterious airfare taxes and fees explained

Everyone these days seems to be piling extra fees and charges on top of airfares. And most of us expect those extras. But what we don’t expect is that they seem to be applied inconsistently and arbitrarily. As one reader put it, “I was searching for a fare and noticed huge differences in taxes and fees for the same route, on different airlines. This has seemed to get worse lately. What’s happening?”

Actually, inconsistencies in taxes and fees can arise from two factors—the route you take and the airline you fly.

Government taxes

As I noted in an [% 292360 | | earlier answer %], domestic air tickets are subject to several sets of taxes and fees:

  • A federal tax of 7.5 percent of the ticket price plus $3.30 per segment.
  • Individual airport charges up to $4.50 per departure, with a maximum of $18 per round-trip ticket.
  • A security charge of $2.50 for each departure, with a maximum of $5 per one-way ticket.

International air tickets are subject to even more taxes and fees:

  • The U.S. charges $14.50 for each international arrival and departure plus $17 in customs and related fees for international arrivals.
  • Foreign governments charge a mixture of airport and other fees, including many that have nothing to do with aviation or security. Some are based on flat fees; others on a percentage of the ticket price. Overall, those extras can add up to more than $50 per departure.

On any given route, however, for the same class of service, ticket price, and itinerary, the total taxes and fees should be the same.

Airline charges

In the U.S., government rules require that airlines bundle any charge that they receive into the base fare. So as long as the airlines match base fares and itineraries, the total charges should also match.

International airlines, however, often prefer to separate the base fare from fuel surcharges and other add-ons that still go to the airline—extras that would have to be included in the U.S. I’m not sure why they do this. Maybe so they can highlight unrealistically low fares in ads that run in countries permitting that sort of deception.

Whatever the reason, you can find some weird differences. On a ticket from New York or Newark to London in mid-August, for example, Continental charges $699 in base fare plus $102 in extras, while British Airways charges $549 plus $244 in extras. Clearly, British Airways classifies some charges as “extras” that Continental bundles into its base fare. But the final ticket prices are very close.

Different approach, same total

Airlines have their own reasons for the ways they compute fares. As long as they quote you the bottom-line total accurately, however, you shouldn’t care about how each one arrives at that total.

And as long as the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) regulates fare advertising, you won’t see U.S airlines featuring phony low airfares with fine print that adds in a bunch of extras that should be included in the base rate. Sadly, the U.S. airlines are trying to get DOT to let them lie to us more than they can now. I, for one, hope they’re unsuccessful.

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