Please ensure Javascript is enabled for purposes of website accessibility

Flyers can expect fuel surcharges again soon

The rising cost of flying comes with a familiar refrain: The airlines need help paying their fuel bills.

For the first time since late 2008, U.S. airlines are adding fuel surcharges to ticket prices. They’ve already raised fares five times since December to offset a 25 percent increase in the price of jet fuel. For those with spring and summer travel plans, it’s a one-two punch.

Right now, surcharges on U.S. routes are between $3 and $5 each way. Back in 2008, surcharges started slightly higher, then jumped as high as $60 when oil hit $147 per barrel in the summer. Many estimates have oil moving slightly above $100 this year. Even a one-way $15 surcharge adds more than 4 percent to the average domestic ticket price of about $340. On international flights, fuel surcharges at their peak can more than double the price of a ticket.

American Airlines last week added a fuel surcharge of about $5 each way on most U.S. routes. United and Continental applied a $3 charge each way. Others are expected to follow suit. JetBlue tacked on $35 to $45 for trips to the Caribbean and Puerto Rico.

Alongside raising fares system-wide, individual airlines are hiking fares further on popular routes. That helps to boost revenue, but airlines aren’t sure whether it’s enough. Airlines generally expect to pay at least 15 to 25 percent more for fuel in 2011. Estimates vary because carriers use different financial strategies to adjust for rising fuel prices. Oil topped $92 per barrel last week, the highest price since October 2008.

Fuel surcharges traditionally have been an easier way to raise fares. An increase to a base fare isn’t always tolerated by customers, who can switch to a rival or force an airline to lower fares again to keep them. Fees are complicated and can drive passengers away, too.

Airlines also believe passengers are more forgiving of price increases for specific reasons.

“I think our customer understands fuel surcharges because they see their energy costs rising as well,” JetBlue Dave Barger said in an interview with The Associated Press.

Surcharges are wrapped into the base fare on U.S. flights — so a separate fee is not incurred at booking — and they must appear in all promotions and advertisements.

On international flights, fuel surcharges often are hidden during an initial fare search on online travel sites and the airlines’ own websites. Sometimes, they can exceed the ticket price. Surcharges for international flights reached $350 on a trip to Europe in 2008. They dropped, but never went away as some domestic charges did during the recession.

Fuel surcharges are labeled with an “F’’ code on a passenger’s final booking statement of airfare and taxes. Peak travel day surcharges, which airlines introduced soon after domestic fuel fees disappeared, are coded “Q.” It’s unclear whether travelers will incur both fees this summer.

Few airline executives expect costs to drop this year, so travelers should prepare for higher fuel surcharges. Southwest CEO Gary Kelly said fuel will be the airline’s biggest hurdle to staying profitable this year. Fuel often is an airline’s biggest expense next to labor, accounting for about a third of an airline’s total costs, on average, according to the International Air Transport Association.