When Is a Fuel Surcharge Not a Fuel Surcharge?

"Effective October 31, 2008, NWA Cargo will reduce its fuel surcharges in certain markets in response to recent declines in the price of jet fuel."

That's the lead sentence of a news release issued yesterday by Northwest's cargo department.

The reductions for domestic and transatlantic flights are just under 5 percent. Since the price of oil has plummeted by more than half—from $147 a barrel in July to less than $65 a barrel today—those decreases seem woefully inadequate. But that's a quibble.

What's more important is the implicit recognition that fuel costs and fuel surcharges are fundamentally linked. Fuel costs have declined, therefore Northwest is lowering its fuel surcharges—which, after all, were imposed to offset a temporary spike in fuel costs.

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Indeed, that's what a fuel surcharge is: A temporary add-on to the published price to cover an unanticipated increase in costs. That's what 'fuel surcharge' means.

So Northwest has proved that, at least in its cargo operation, they understand what it means to call something a fuel surcharge. Have they eliminated or reduced the fuel surcharges for award tickets? No. When those surcharges were announced in July, the airline's chief, Doug Steenland, gave the following assurance: "This is a temporary service fee to partially offset our fuel costs. As fuel comes down, we will re-visit this decision." So far, that's an empty promise.

Northwest is hardly alone in refusing to roll back the surcharges. Most U.S. carriers have kept theirs in place as well, apparently following the "take what you can get, as long as you can get it" approach.

But words have meaning. If you call something a fuel surcharge, then you're committing—promising—to behaving in a certain way. And if you fail to follow through—to align the surcharges with fuel costs, both as they rise and as they fall—then they are not fuel surcharges, and never were. To call them fuel surcharges is a willful mischaracterization. No, check that ... let's call it by its rightful name: It's a lie.

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