Why does international air travel cost so much? A breakdown of a single transcontinental flight reveals just how much you pay in taxes and fees — and why.
If you’re like me, you dream of seeing the world. You read travel magazines, watch travel shows on television. The destinations are breathtaking. You want to go.
The you start pricing airline flights to some of those far-flung destinations. The airfares, it turns out, are just as breathtaking, and not in a good way.
To borrow from a rhetorical riff made famous by New York’s Jimmy MacMillan, the airfares are too damn high.
The airlines cry foul when they hear such complaints, arguing that airfares, often, are lower now than they’ve ever been, thanks in no small part to the many jumbo jets moving enormous numbers of passengers around the world every day.
So who’s right?
Welcome to Tax & Fee World, ladies and gentlemen. Wish I could tell you to enjoy the ride.
To see just how ugly it can get, let’s break down a typical international airfare.
Turkey, a living bridge of history and culture between Europe and Asia, is one of the destinations on my list of must-see countries. So let’s look at a round-trip airfare for two from Los Angeles to Istanbul on Turkish Airlines.
I also chose Premium Economy seats over Economy (or as I like to call it, Sardine Class) because LAX-IST is a 13-hour flight, I’m not a small guy and I don’t feel like suffering for 13 non-stop hours.
BREAKING IT DOWN
The fare that I found on Turkish Airlines came to $3,811.20 for two people, or $1,905.60 per person. But the base fare for that flight is $1,488 per person, or $2,976 for two. For a flight of that distance on an upscaled seating class, that’s not bad.
But what accounts for that extra $835 and change?
This Turkish Airlines fare comes with nine added taxes and fees, each charged per passenger. Seven of these are levied by the United States government:
- An international departure tax and an international arrival tax. That’s $17.50 four times: $70.
- A 9/11 security fee of $5.60. Multiply by two: $11.20
- A passenger facility charge of $4.50, which goes to LAX for airport improvements. Again, multiply by two: $9.
- A $5.50 Customs fee, twice: $11
- A $7 Immigration inspection fee, times two: $14
- This one’s for animal and plant health inspectors, the folks who keep destructive non-native plant and insect pests out of the US. Five dollars per passenger: $10.
Added together, that’s a hefty $125.20. That alone would be bad enough. But we’re not done. Two of those nine added taxes and fees are from the Turkish end of this trip.
There’s the international airport service charge of $15. Again, multiply by two. That’s another $30. So we’re now up to $155.20 in taxes and fees.
But I’ve saved the “best” for last, the fuel surcharge imposed by Turkish Airlines — $340. Yes, per person.
Drum roll, please: $680. And that’s before you’ve paid a dime in baggage fees.
(NOTE: Airlines have a more generous baggage allowance on international than on domestic flights, so as long as you don’t overpack, you should be able to get by without paying to check your bags.)
It all adds up to $835 in added taxes and fees. For that amount of money, you could fly round-trip between LAX and Miami. Twice. With enough cash left over to pay for a day or two’s worth of car rental.
So why should we have to pay all that?
THE REASONS WHY
First, note that by far the largest add-on goes to neither the US nor the Turkish government. It goes to Turkish Airlines to help cover their fuel bill.
All those who have no clue about the high cost of fuel these days, raise your hand — as you board your bus.
Two of those fees go to the airports at either end of the flight. Airports, especially international airports, cost money to run, and even more to upgrade. Should at least some of that money come from the travelers using that airport 24/7?
Four of the charges go purely to security — passenger control, customs checks, immigration checks and agricultural inspections. None of that is what you could call frivolous.
Only the arrival and departure taxes ultimately wind up in Uncle Sam’s general fund.
So the next time somebody agonizes aloud over the high cost of international air travel, you’ll be able to break it down for them. It won’t make paying it all any less painful, but at least you’ll know the reasoning behind it.
If you’ve never flown internationally before, you might wonder why I would choose a foreign national carrier like Turkish Airlines over a US-based airline to fly all the way across North America, the Atlantic Ocean and Europe.
The reasons have nothing to do with bargain fares, since all international airlines charge pretty similar rates these days.
When traveling to a different part of the world for the first time, I’ve found that using that country’s national airline can serve as a nice introduction to that country and its culture.
It’s perhaps the most comfortable way to take that first step out of your cultural comfort zone.
Pride also enters into it. National “flag carriers,” as they’re known in the airline industry, are representing their countries to the rest of the world, and they take that seriously. As such, they work hard to make the best possible impression on their passengers, especially those from abroad.
So when air passengers polled by the British airline rating site Skytrax rate Turkish not only higher than almost any US airline, but also the best in Europe, it wasn’t a total shock. The in-flight service on major foreign airlines is often better, sometimes markedly better, than that of their US counterparts.
If you’re going to spend a half-day or longer flying halfway around the world, you want to do that with people who take your comfort seriously.