aircraft being fueled by tanker

Airlines Are Undercharging You For Fuel

Taxes, duty, surcharges… passenger facility charges.

Airline tickets are a lot more than just a standard fare. For most consumers the fare breakdown is a non-issue because the total fare is shown clearly at time of purchase (you may never even see the fare breakdown).

Some including taxes imposed by governments are fixed. Even if the airline thinks they’re unreasonable they still have to pay.

Items like Fuel Surcharge are less defined as they are set by individual airlines; but how closely do they correlate to actual fuel cost for the journey?

Methodology

I recently flew from London to Qatar and was charged a Fuel Surcharge.

Using data about plane efficiency found on Wikipedia and fuel costs from IATA (Oct 2016 @ 1.42 USD / gal) I was able to estimate the amount of fuel used for the journey, the estimated total cost of fuel, and how it differed from the Fuel Surcharge charged.

Because airlines rarely share actual passenger numbers my calculations assume passenger load factor (percentage of seat capacity utilised) = 100% (even though aircraft rarely operate at 100% capacity). For example, the PLF for British Airways in 2014 was about 81% (although some of their popular routes operate at 99%!).

It is also worth noting, thousands of unique factors affect actual fuel economy: payload weight, weather conditions, delays, required additional fuel for safety regulations, etc that I could not account for.

Results

Fuel Surcharges

Fuel Surcharges are often coded as YQ or YR on tickets. Fuel surcharges were introduced in the early to mid-2000s when the price of oil soared.

Many people incorrectly confuse the Fuel Surcharge as the actual fuel cost.

“A fuel surcharge is a way of adjusting the amount paid to move freight [persons] by taking into account significant variation in fuel prices, compared to historical levels. It is a method for sharing or transferring risk.”
Supply Chain 24/7

A Fuel Surcharge is designed to cover the varying fuel cost of flying you to your destination, but it is not the actual fuel cost.

If you think about this more deeply, charging an actual fuel cost would be impossible due to fluctuations in fuel price paid by the airline. Aircraft fuel has fallen by over 60% in the last two years alone. But are airlines passing these savings onto consumers?

Some sources claim Fuel Surcharges are “not for fuel any more“, suggesting they account for additional costs and operating margins. Other sources also claim airline Fuel Surcharges have no direct relationship to fuel cost.

Admission: This makes it almost impossible to calculate wether airlines are overcharging for fuel (because we don’t know what parts of the fare breakdown account for it). Though bear with me. Lets hypothesises that Fuel Surcharge has some relationship to fuel cost.

jet-fuel-price-2011-2015-travelstats1

Airline Opex

Airline Opex 2008

Download chart.

In 2008 fuel accounted for the third largest share of airline operating expenses at 32.3% for all major airlines — in 2001 it was only 13.6%! More recent data would suggest fuel now accounts for 27.6% of an airlines operating expenditure.

Actual Fuel Cost

My flights:

Route Aircraft Miles
LHR – DOH Boeing 787-8 Dreamliner 3,259
DOH – BKK Airbus A380-800 3,288
BKK – DOH Airbus A380-800 3,288
DOH – BKK Boeing 787-8 Dreamliner 3,259

Full table.

I was charged $230.68 USD in Fuel Surcharges for the round-trip, or $115.34 USD one-way (the total for the ticket was $671 USD, fuel surcharge is 29% of total cost).

To obtain the additional data required to estimate actual fuel costs I used:

  • Wikipedia: average fuel efficiency for both these aircrafts, and many more.
  • IATA: jet fuel costs.

Did you know: The Airbus A380’s fuel tank has a capacity of 320,000 litres (84,500 US Gal) of jet fuel — most of which is stored in the wings! In comparison, my old car had a 50L (13 US Gal) tank. 

The estimated actual fuel costs for my journey:

US Gal Needed p/Pax US Gal Needed Total
Boeing 787-8 (one-way) 37.03 8,814.11
Airbus A380 (one-way) 45.67 23,975.00
One-way 82.70 32,789.11
Round-trip 165.40 65,578.23

Fuel Hedging

Fuel surcharges introduced when oil prices were high have remained in place because most airlines hedged their fuel purchases.

The International Air Transport Association (IATA) reckons the final hedges which locked airlines into higher than market oil prices will unwind by mid-2016, increasing the potential for cheaper airfare towards the end of the year.

Overcharging for fuel

Per Pax Actual and Per Pax Fuel Surcharge

Download chart.

My ticket was booked within 3 weeks of outbound travel (7 weeks of return travel). Given a Fuel Surcharge “takes into account significant variation in fuel prices”, I did expect the estimated actual fuel cost to vary slightly given the current market conditions.

Assuming Fuel Surcharge = fuel cost, calculations based on the current jet fuel price (Oct 2016) ($1.42 / US Gal), I am being undercharged for fuel by $3.04 USD ($230.68 fuel surcharge -$233.72 actual fuel cost).

Remember this assumes a 100% passenger load factor, so it is very likely the airline is receiving less in total in Fuel Surcharges (e.g 80% load factor would equal 20% drop in total Fuel Surcharge). In such a case, it means I am actually being undercharged by an even greater amount.

As discussed, many people believe a Fuel Surcharge != fuel cost. However, it is interesting to note the difference between the two is almost 0. Whilst this is not very solid proof of a correlation, it would definitely indicate one.

So lets stick with the assumption that Fuel Surcharge = fuel cost. If the airline hedged at the 5 Year high in 2011 ($3.27 / US Gal) I would actually be underpaying by a whopping $307.52 USD ($230.68 -$538.20). Assuming the planes are operating at full capacity, that would be a total fuel underpayment for the journey of around $30,000 USD!

To add some balance, assuming the airline purchased fuel at the average price of these two values ($2.35 / US Gal – 2014 prices) I am underpaying $156.10 USD for my fuel surcharge ($230.68 – $386.78).

Improvements

Instead of using fuel surcharge for comparison, I could use reported airline opex figures for fuel expenditure against ticket cost.

tl;dr

Your airline is probably undercharging you for fuel based on current jet fuel prices (latest @ $1.36 – Nov 2016) — assuming fuel surcharge = fuel cost. 

Footnotes

  1. Data sources + data used in this post.

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