Airline Mischaracterization of Fuel Surcharges: Qatar Airways

Aviation Consumer Protection - Misrepresentation of Fuel Surcharges in Airline Price Advertising - Benjamin Edelman and Xiaoxiao Wu

Fuel surcharges are imposed by air carriers of their own volition, not required by any government, regulator, airline, or similar authority. However, Qatar Airways has systematically mischaracterized these fuel surcharges as “tax.”

See the test booking shown in Figure 1. In a booking of November 2011, I used the Qatar Airways web site to request award travel for two passengers in business class on SIN-DPS (one-way). Qatar Airways quoted a "Basic Fare" of 0 and 25,000 Q miles for two passengers. Qatar then quoted "Taxes" of 188.8 SGD . I clicked the "Taxes" label and received the window shown in Figure 2.

Figure 1: Qatar Airways falsely claims 188.80 SGD of "Taxes"

Figure 2: Qatar Airways admits that 66.40 of the 94.40 (per person) of "Taxes" is actually "Surcharge(YQAP)"

In Figure 2, Qatar Airways itemizes "tax" with a "surcharge(YQAP)" of 66.40 SGD per passenger (70% of the quoted "tax" amount). In fact this surcharge is not actually a "tax." But Qatar characterizes it as "tax" both in the the initial quote (Figure 1) and in the "tax" heading of Figure 2. Furthermore, no ordinary consumer would be able to determine whether "Surcharge(YQAP)" is a genuine government tax or a carrier-imposed surcharge.

I subsequently checked other routes, including routes to and from the US. I found that the Qatar Airways web site systematically reported as "taxes" various amounts that are, as best I can determine, actually carrier-imposed surcharges. I also received a similar misrepresentation when quoting award travel from a Qatar Airways telephone representative.

Qatar Airways Customer Relations Staff Mischaracterize Its Carrier-Imposed Surcharge

Noting the impermissible mischaracterization of a carrier-imposed surcharge as a "tax," I inquiries to Qatar Airways customer relations staff. Qatar staff replied that "our YQ (Fuel Surcharge) labelled as tax is correct. It is a common practice with many Airlines and our program." I emphatically disagree that this practice is "correct"; even if such misrepresentations were common, as Qatar argues, they would still be improper.

In further correspondence, Qatar made the obviously untrue claim that "The fee was never called a tax." (In contrast, see the screenshots above.) Qatar also refused to refund the amount wrongfully charged to me or to admit that its conduct was unlawful. Indeed, in a follow-up letter of February 10, 2012, Anita Mosner of Holland & Knight specifically claimed that "Qatar Airway's actions and practices are consistent with all relevant laws." That said, Qatar did provide a "gesture of goodwill" in the amount of the "tax" I claimed had been charged unlawfully.

Complaint to DOT

In January 2012, I sent a complaint to the Department of Transportation as to these Qatar Airways practices. The DOT has not yet acted on my complaint. That said, the DOT's Additional Guidance on Airfare / Air Tour Price Advertisements confirms the impropriety of many of the practices I flagged.

In January 2012, I also sent a complaint to the Civil Aviation Authority of Singapore as to the practices at issue. (Although I believe the Qatar practices at issue occurred worldwide, I uncovered these practices via a ticket originating in Singapore. This Singapore-originating ticket prompted me to contact Singapore regulators.) Three weeks later, my CAAS contact replied:

We managed to persuade Qatar Airways to make changes to their booking system. They have revised their system and the field "taxes" has been amended to reflect "taxes, fees and surcharges."