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At the beginning of 2015 we have seen an important drop in the cost of oil. While drivers could see a pretty fast difference when filling their gas tanks, I do not see any difference in flight prices.

I know the cost of oil in flight costs is important. It is even often priced to customers as a "fuel surcharge". I expect it is hard to predict the cost of a flight months on advance when tickets are sold.

So I am curious if airlines commonly practice some kind of price buffering regarding the cost of oil. As an airline customer, should I expect prices to vary in case of important variations of the cost of oil? And in that case, is there any knowledge of how long it takes for flight prices to reflect the cost of oil? I suppose that the reflection of the cost will be faster if the costs increase than if they decrease anyway.

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    LA Times columnist just talked about this yesterday, Jan 26 2015. – mkennedy Jan 26 '15 at 22:20
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    Financially, hedging against such risks is supposed to be the purpose of futures contracts. OTOH, “fuel surcharges” really don't have much to do with that anymore, it's mostly about getting around rules on redeeming frequent miles and the like (otherwise, airlines could simply adjust their price directly). – Relaxed Jan 26 '15 at 22:27
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    While interesting, I'm now sure that this is a travel question in line with the help center – Mark Mayo Supports Monica Jan 26 '15 at 22:43
  • @MarkMayo you are "now sure" or "not sure"? – Nean Der Thal Jan 26 '15 at 22:51
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    AirAsia just scrapped their fuel surcharge after the oil prices dropped. Although they have of course other reasons why they might need more attractive prices right now to attract customers. – drat Jan 27 '15 at 2:33
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Many airlines, and other large consumers of fuel (or other volatile commodities) will do what is called hedging. Specifically, fuel hedging works by (in simplified terms), buying fuel ahead of time (in the form of options) at a pre-arranged price. If the actual price of fuel is higher than the contractual price, the airline comes out ahead. If the price drops below the anticipated price, the airline ends up paying more, but at least they had a predictable budget.

From the article:

During the 2009-2010 period, the studies for the airline industry have shown the average hedging ratio to be 64%.

Presumably the 64% is as a percentage of jet fuel and/or crude oil used in the airline industry, not the percentage of airlines which hedged oil. But it's enough to see that it's a very common practice.


This is essentially the same thing you do when you hear that gas prices may jump sharply on the weekend--you go out and fill up your gas tank early.

But imagine if you had the option to store even more fuel than would fit in your automobile. Perhaps you could install a large fuel tank in your back yard, and when gas prices drop, you could fill your backyard fuel store. Then when prices jump later in the year, you fill up your automobile in the back yard. If prices were to actually drop, rather than go up as you expected, you would end up paying more than you otherwise would have, but if the prices do indeed go up, you'll be laughing at all your neighbors for paying double at the fuel tank.

Now imagine if you could do the same thing, but with a contract rather than with a fuel tank. You go to your corner gas station and say "I like the price of fuel today. Can I buy 5,000 gallons at today's price? But I'll pick up the fuel later, when I need it, one tank full at a time?"

Naturally, no gas station will do that. And it of course gets complicated, because when you're doing large transactions like that, you base it on the anticipated future price, not on today's price, etc. But you get the general idea.

But oil wholesalers will, on the commodities future market. And if you're a big enough player, you can buy and sell such futures yourself, and this is exactly what airlines (or other investors) do.

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    @pnuts: Any time someone makes money, that means there was a margin added to an otherwise lower cost, so yes, costs go up in an absolute sense. But in the larger picture, stability of prices is worth a lot more than that rise in cost brought on by the risk mitigation measures (same as with insurance and other forms of risk management). Otherwise airlines wouldn't do this, and their ticket prices would fluctuate rapidly. – Flimzy Jan 27 '15 at 17:50
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I am not the expert on this matter, but I know a thing or two.

Airlines sell tickets in advance (way in advance) and in bulk, so a change in the oil price must be long in advance before airlines can act accordingly and change the fuel surcharge. If airlines acted quickly and changed the price according to the current low price and then a few weeks later oil prices go up again, then airlines are screwed because they would have sold many cheap tickets in the future when the price will be higher and the extra profit they made due to the low prices in the current period will not cover the losses in the future.

Another thing, it is a quick, unanticipated extra profit for the airlines, and who doesn't like that.

Regarding the price buffering, most (if not all) airlines make their fuel surcharge according to the highest possible fuel price they faced, and it is too dangerous for them to change it as I said earlier unless the prices are low for a long period.

  • most airlines make their fuel surcharge according to the highest possible fuel price they faced -- I don't imagine this to be true. Do you have a source that says this? I expect they base their price on their projected fuel price, which is usually very nearly set in stone (or at least capped), thanks to futures markets. – Flimzy Jan 27 '15 at 6:12

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