Peak day surcharges — why they’re worse than higher fares

If airlines could charge passengers for the air they breathe on board, they probably would.

Since that would probably be illegal, they have to come up with other options. One of the more insidious is “peak day surcharges.” This is a surcharge for a flight on a traditionally busy flying day, like the Sunday after Thanksgiving or Christmas.

Now, the idea of higher fares on busier travel days makes sense. More people want to fly around the holidays and on Fridays and Sundays, for example. So, sales being blacked out at times makes sense, as does offering fewer if any really discounted seats on those days.

Peak day surcharges are a variation on blackouts and limited seats. However, they are worse in a number or ways.

First, if you’re looking for discount fare categories and find the booking class available, it’s not a pleasant surprise to see that the same fare in the same booking class is much higher — $80 at time of writing from San Francisco to Boston on the Sunday after Thanksgiving on United; $60 higher on the same day from Salt Lake City to Boston on Delta. From Hawaii to San Francisco, the surcharge is $100.

Second, the surcharges aren’t easily found in fare displays. They can be changed on the airlines’ whim. The only way to see if a travel day is considered “peak” is to try booking a flight. When peak surcharges started in 2009, they were $10-$30. Now, it seems like just a matter of time before they regularly top $100. Plus, they aren’t necessarily dependent on the distance involved. On November 27, for example, they are $80 on United, even for a short intra-California flight.

More importantly, however, is the fact that these surcharges are not discountable in any way. That means if you have some sort of corporate or other discount with the airline, the surcharge is not affected.  The full surcharge also still applies on bulk fares issued through tour operators.

For tour operators and travel agents who get paid commissions on airline tickets, peak day surcharges, like fuel surcharges, are non-commissionable. They are pure profit to the carrier.

While travelers may not really care if a travel agent selling them the ticket is making less money, these businesses will need to make up the money somehow. That translates to higher prices and fees for help booking and tour planning.

One thing is pretty sure: since there does not seem to be much push-back against these peak travel surcharges, they will remain, and get higher. Who knows, maybe the next surcharge will be for “peak hours.”