What's Up With Fuel Surcharges on Award Flights?

VIDEO: Travelocity Senior Editor Genevieve Shaw Brown gives advice to travelers.

If you read recent reports about a a $500 fuel surcharge tacked on to an frequent flyer award flight on British Airways, did you wonder whether this was the only instance? A reader did:

"A huge surcharge for a "free" trip on British Airways – is this just an isolated scam or the beginning of another round of frequent flyer devaluations?"

The short answer is, "So far, with U.S. airlines, it's isolated, but it's the norm for many other lines."

It helps to understand that many airlines belong to alliances in which the members have varying degrees of reciprocity on policies. Apparently, an airline's decision to impose fuel surcharge associated with an alliance partner airline rests with the carrier holding the miles and issuing the award, not necessarily with the airline operating the actual flight

So when I saw the first reports of the British Airways charge I started to follow up among other big airlines -- foreign and domestic -- to get details on their surcharge policies and agreements with awards partner carriers.

Here's what I found, as of mid-February.

The Big U.S. Lines

Three of the largest U.S. lines, each the local cornerstone of its major alliance, say that the AA/BA charge situation is the only surcharge they're imposing – so far:

  • None of the three biggest U.S. lines – American, Delta and United – imposes a fuel surcharge on its own flights on frequent flyer awards.
  • American said the British Airways surcharge on frequent flyer awards was the only one among its partner lines.
  • Delta said that it did not add a fuel surcharge to award trips on any partner-line flights, but it did impose fuel surcharges on award tickets for trips that originate in Europe, to remain "in alignment" with its Air France partner.
  • United said it does not surcharge any frequent flyer award travel.

At this point, my take is that these and other U.S. lines will try to avoid adding fuel surcharges on their own and partner-line award trips. But that could change, depending on how contractual details among partner airlines may vary in coming months.

Foreign Airlines, Stiffer Surcharges

The story is quite different on key foreign lines I've contacted so far:

  • AirFrance/KLM, British Airways, Japan Airlines, Lufthansa, Singapore, and Virgin Atlantic all impose a fuel surcharge on mileage award travel based on credit in their own programs.
  • I have not yet found any important international airline that does not add a surcharge to awards on its own mileage. But I'm still looking.

Figuring out the exact amount of the fuel surcharge can be something of a challenge, because most lines lump it in with some of the other taxes and fees travelers on "free" tickets are required to pay. Typically they make it very difficult for you to figure out in advance what the fuel surcharge might be.

JAL is the only line I've checked so far with an easy disclosure of fuel surcharges: a fuel surcharge link under the "JAL News" heading on its home page.

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