Originally created 02/10/02

Fare just the beginning of what you pay for ticket



Feel an urge to get away to a sunny clime? How about Puerto Vallarta, Mexico? You might be able to get a round-trip ticket for $169.

Not so fast. There's a catch. The taxes and fees on that trip will be $82.61, bringing your $169 fare to $251.61.

Welcome to the new world of air travel, in which the fare is just the beginning of what you'll pay for a ticket. From now on, travelers will have to make their decisions based on fares and fees.

"A lot of (the fees) are new, and a lot of them have gone up enormously," said George Wozniak, owner of Hobbit Travel, a Minneapolis discount fare agency. "Before, they used to be $2, $1, $1.25. It wasn't any big deal. It added up to be $15 or $20. Now all of a sudden it's $80 or $90."

The average traveler would have to be a first-class sleuth to find out exactly what those fees are and where the money goes. Airlines might tell you what the fee total is, as Northwest Airlines does on its Web site, but the fees are not likely to be broken down.

You might find them in a jumble of indecipherable code or in the fine print: "Fees do not include departure/arrival/customs and immigration fees of up to $140."

Even travelers who are shocked might remain clueless, given that not even the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) keeps track of these fees. The agency is concerned only about the one fee it administers, the passenger facility charge, said spokesman Jim Tise.

The Air Transport Association (ATA), a trade group representing the airlines, keeps a list of fees, but how's a traveler to know that? The best bet is to enlist the help of a travel agent.

One thing is certain: Fees and taxes take billions of dollars out of travelers' pockets annually.

"Isn't it interesting how they've decided that that all of these tickets are cash cows?" Wozniak said.

Here are some of the fees and what they're for. They're nothing to moo at:

Security service fee: This is the newest fee. Travelers will pay up to $10 per trip for the privilege of being scanned, screened, frisked and otherwise given a good going-over at new security gates around the country.

It'll cost $2.50 for each segment of your trip, for a maximum $5 one way and $10 round trip. It applies to all domestic and foreign flights originating in the United States, including trips earned with frequent flier miles.

The fee was Congress' response to the Sept. 11 attacks. Requiring the federal government to take over security, Congress imposed this fee to pay for it. Airports will have federal security directors, who will hire and train security personnel, oversee security procedures and coordinate law enforcement.

Passenger facility charge: This is an old-timer among fees. It is collected by airlines and turned over to airports to be used to expand and upgrade facilities.

For years it was up to $3 per segment flown, for a maximum of $12 per trip. Now it's up to $4.50 per segment, for a maximum of $18.

The fee is not mandatory, said Tony Molinaro, regional FAA spokesman. "That's something airports are allowed to put on if they want to." And most airports do, he said. "As soon as they get a (new) maximum, they go right to it."

Segment tax: Sometimes called a federal excise tax. It started out at $1 and kept going up. Now it's $3, with a $12 maximum.

The money goes to the Aviation Trust Fund, created in 1970 to improve aviation systems. Congress started snooping two years ago because $7.5 billion was sitting in the fund unused.

Federal ticket tax: This tax, once 10 percent of the ticket price, died out for a while. It came back in 1999 as 7.5 percent of the ticket price. This money also goes into the Aviation Trust Fund. It applies only to flights within the United States.

So how do all these fees add up? Northwest's average domestic ticket costs $274, said Paul Dailey, the airline's domestic pricing manager. Add the 7.5 percent excise tax ($20.55), the passenger facility charge ($18, including one stop each way), segment taxes ($12), security fee ($10).

Now you have a ticket that costs $334.55. Northwest is absorbing a $4.20 fuel cost per ticket.

At some point, Dailey said, some people will turn away from travel because of the price of the ticket, "and a big portion of their ticket costs are going to be these taxes."

They add 22 percent to the price of that $274 ticket, Northwest spokesman Kurt Ebenhoch points out.

Wait, it gets worse

There's a whole other set of fees for trips abroad.

International departure and arrival taxes: These are a no-brainer for the United States and other countries. People arrive at one of your airports, or they leave one of your airports, and they have no choice but to pay your taxes.

But these taxes are a double whammy for travelers.

"Keep in mind when you're traveling internationally, you are paying taxes for two countries," said Steve Loucks, spokesman for Carlson Wagonlit Travel in Minneapolis.

In the United States these taxes are $12.80 each way. They apply to U.S. territories such as Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands as well as to other countries.

Customs fees, etc.: Each traveler who arrives on U.S. soil from another country pays a $5 customs fee, a $6 immigration fee and a $3 agriculture fee. Perhaps the latter buys biscuits for the food-sniffing beagles.

How big a bite do these fees take on a trip abroad? For a trip to London in March, a $340 fare became $442.46 with the addition of $102.46 in taxes and fees.