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The True Cost of Flying

Last Updated:2014-May-31
Principal Writer:Barry Shatzman

Issue Sections

Understanding The Issue
Issue Status
Analysis and Perspectives
What You Can Do
More Information

Reported News

Consumer Issues: Company Practices

Related Bills

Transparent Airfares Act

2014 (HR-4156)

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Why is air travel so complicated?

They all will get you from point A to point B. But buying a ticket for air travel is much more complicated than buying one for any other form of travel.

From reserving a seat to checking bags to changing your flight, each airline charges different fees for various "services". In addition, you might not even fly on the airline that you bought a ticket for.

In this article, we discuss the issues of traveling by air.

The ticket price is only part of the deal

When you search for airline flights, you can compare ticket prices. That comparison, however, will not necessarily tell you which is the least expensive flight.

The reason is that each airline charges different fees for different services.

There is nothing inherently wrong with this practice. If you don't need to check luggage, you might find a cheaper price on an airline that charges for that service yet offers a cheaper ticket.

It does make comparing prices difficult. Most airlines charge $20 - $40 per bag if you check a bag or two. Most also charge a fee if you make your reservation by phone.

Adding to the complexity is that airline websites and third-party travel websites such as Kayak often do not prominently show these fees.

The federal government imposes taxes and fees

Airline tickets are not subject to state sales taxes. However, every airline ticket is subject to the following federal taxes...

o Federal Excise Tax: 7.5 percent of the ticket price.

o Flight Segment Tax: Paid for each segment of a flight. In 2014 the tax is $4 for each segment.

o Passenger Facility Charge: This is charged for each airport that is controlled by a public agency. It was created in 1990 to pay for airport improvements. The amount of the fee varies by airport - up to $4.50 per airport.

o Sept. 11 Security Fee: This helps pay for airport security equipment and the Transportation Security Agency (TSA). Initially $2.50 for each segment of a flight, this fee increases on July 1, 2014 to $5.60 per flight (regardless of the number of segments).

If you are flying into or out of the United States, other fees are added.

Why aren't I flying on the airline I bought a ticket for?

It seems so obvious. You buy an airline ticket for United Airlines. You fly on United Airlines.

Except maybe you don't. And you might not know it until you get to the airport and find yourself being charged an unexpected baggage fee. Worse, the airline you end up flying on might have different safety procedures - and a different safety record - than the one you thought you would be flying on.

Major airlines routinely shift passengers onto planes run by smaller regional airlines. In fact, more than half of all scheduled commercial passenger flights are flown by these smaller airlines, according the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT).

The practice is known in the airline industry as code sharing - because the regional airline uses the major airline's two-letter flight designator code (as well as the major airline's logos and uniforms).

When you buy a ticket, you might not be aware of what airline you actually will be flying on, because the information not always easily accessible. Although your ticket or itinerary for a United Airlines flight might say "Operated by UNITED EXPRESS/SKYWEST AIRLINES," for example, the message might be at the very bottom of the page, rather than next to the flight information. It also may be a message that many people simply will disregard.

This practice provides some benefits to flyers, the DOT says. These include...

o Lower fares
o All flights and connections are booked through one airline at the same time
o Faster transfers because the airlines coordinate their flights and baggage handling
o If a passenger misses a connecting flight because of a delay in their first flight, the second airline likely won't charge extra fees.

Airlines also benefit because they can appear to offer flights to more destinations (or more flights to the same destination) and keep operating costs lower.

The issue came to light after the 2009 crash of a Continental Airlines flight near Buffalo, NY that killed 50 people. The flight actually was operated by Colgan Air - a commuter airline.

The accident triggered a Call to Action on Airline Safety and Pilot Training, to ensure that an airline's regional partners maintain the same level of safety as flights operated directly by the major airline. The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), however, has not followed through on this - and does not review code sharing agreements between airlines, according to a 2013 DOT report. Reviewing these agreements could, for example, alert the FAA to performance stipulations in the contract that might influence a regional airline's safety policies.

The text of the DOT report is 15 pages long. You can read it here.

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