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Jeffrey Simpson (Brigitte Bouvier For The Globe and Mail)

Jeffrey Simpson

(Brigitte Bouvier For The Globe and Mail)

Jeffrey Simpson

How quickly wow fares turn into woe fares Add to ...

Check out the deals! Vancouver to London return on Air Canada, $575. Wow! Toronto to New York return, $385. Wow! Montreal to Calgary, $638, wow, sort of.

Alas, as everyone who flies quickly learns, wow fares quickly become woe fares. That $575 Vancouver-London fare turns into $1,157 when surcharges and assorted taxes are added. The Toronto-New York return becomes $514, the Montreal-Calgary one $850. What you see at first glance, therefore, is not what you get. On the Vancouver-London flight, there are seven extra charges; on the Toronto-New York flight, there are nine.

Buried in the fine print are the surcharge and tax entrails of the story of today’s flying. Buried even further, to the point of not even being seen by passengers, are still other entrails that demonstrate how the federal government considers passengers cash cows for revenue, to the detriment of airlines, airports and, of course, consumers.

It’s one thing for the government to impose a tax for the purpose of delivering something; it’s another for delivering nothing. But that’s what happens across the country as Transport Canada demands rents from large airports while no longer giving them anything in return.

Years ago, Transport Canada owned and ran the airports. The ministry gave that up a long time ago. Airports in private or community hands repaid the ministry for the capital, but the ministry still demands rent. It’s a cash grab, pure and simple. Airports, in turn, impose higher landing fees on airlines. The airlines, naturally, pass on the costs to passengers.

And what are the passengers doing? They’re following their pocketbook away from Canadian airports and heading for nearby U.S. airports. There, the fares are lower, and the parking charges much lower.

Canada’s airports estimate that as much as $2-billion is being lost to them and Canadian carriers by passengers heading for the U.S. to fly. And why not, given that Plattsburgh, N.Y., and Burlington, Vt., are within two hours of Montreal; that Buffalo is not far from Toronto, Hamilton and the Niagara Peninsula; that Detroit is across the river from Windsor and two hours from London; and that Bellingham, Wash., beckons everyone in B.C.’s Lower Mainland?

This week, people from the airports and the tourism industry trooped into Ottawa, fighting mad. These taxes are bad for their business, they said, and they’re right. The government sent a junior minister, who read a dull speech that addressed none of their concerns. In Ottawa-speak, that means “Not interested.”

To some extent, Canada’s airports hurt themselves. Fifty-two of them have imposed “improvement fees” that range from $5 to $40. Imperious Toronto imposes two charges: one for passengers who embark there, another for those who transfer. These fees are hidden in the price of a ticket.

The country’s airports are the single best infrastructure in Canada for a simple reason: They have a steady source of income against which they can borrow. Some of them are overbuilt, although no airport authority would ever admit to that possibility. More is better, and why not with constant revenue coming in from the “improvement fees”?

Since airport boards are largely made up of business people and civic worthies, not consumers or airlines, the incentive to reduce or remove these fees is limited. Boards will always find something new on which to spend money, based on the “build it and they will come” plan.

Airports have no control over another excess: the security arrangements that passengers pay for on their tickets. The whole system is based on a worst-case scenario for every passenger from infants to the infirm, an absurd calculation of risks that lead to too many inspections, too many staff and too much delay.

Depending on where you’re headed, here are some of the charges you will bear: peak travel premium, insurance surcharge, air travellers security charge, NAV Canada surcharges, airport improvement fees, GST, fuel surcharge, ticket surcharge, plus extra fees imposed by governments in the U.K. and the U.S.

The airports are right to complain about government rents, but a much more thorough review of the whole array of charges would be needed to stop some of the bleeding to the United States.

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