[Update 2: SIA has reversed its decision and will not be levying credit card surcharges]
[Update 1 : The FAQ section has been updated since I wrote the article this morning. Originally, it mentioned the credit card fee would be applied to the all inclusive fare for “certain fare types”
That’s since been updated to state it’s explicitly for Economy Lite.
Does that make it better? A bit. But my beef is still with the principle behind the move, namely that a full service carrier like SQ shouldn’t be charging credit card fees. Regardless of ticket class.]
The writing has been on the wall for some time that Singapore Airlines is starting to give serious thought to improving profitability via unbundling. A major warning bell was sounded last month when the airline announced it would start charging economy class passengers in certain fare buckets for seat selection.
Here’s what I wrote at the time:
It is disappointing to me that a carrier which takes great pains to brand itself as premium would start nickel and diming economy passengers for seat selection…SQ will of course position this as “giving our highest fare paying customers preferred treatment”…make no mistake, though, this marks a strategic change in the way SQ thinks, and it makes me wonder what other changes we’ll see…
Well, it appears we have an answer.
Singapore Airlines will impose credit card surcharges for flights ex-SIN starting 20 January
Let’s start with the facts.
From 20 January 2018 (incidentally, the same date SQ’s new fare buckets kick in), Singapore Airlines will levy a 1.3% non-refundable credit card surcharge, capped at S$50, for air tickets booked through Singaporeair.com, the SIA office or your travel agent.
This non-refundable surcharge will not apply to:
- Redemption tickets
- Ancillary products like preferred seats or excess baggage
- Additional fares or fees collected when changes to original booking are made
- Payments made with debit cards or alternative methods like Paypal
- Payments made with the Singapore Airlines Krisflyer Credit Card
At a 1.3% surcharge, the S$50 cap will only be triggered if your all-inclusive fare is more than S$3,846, which means that almost every economy and premium economy fare will feel the full force of the surcharge. [Update: it has been clarified this only applies to Economy Lite fares]
Why is SQ levying a credit card surcharge?
Long answer: here’s an illuminating tidbit from the FAQ section explaining why a surcharge is levied.
When you use a credit card to pay for your flights out of certain countries, Singapore Airlines incurs costs relating to the acceptance of credit cards.
Well, er, yeah SQ. It’s called a cost of doing business. It’s something that countless other merchants (including, might I add, other full service carriers) absorb. What you’re doing is like a convenience store charging a “cashier fee” at check out because they need to pay the cashier a salary to handle my payment.
And how are the fees set?
Our fees are based largely on local market practices.
SQ is of course not the first airline to levy credit card surcharges in Singapore. Here’s a sampling of what some other carriers charge.
- Scoot- $10 per flight
- Air Asia- $8 per flight
- Jetstar- $10 per flight
But wait, stop. Does anyone see what’s wrong with the picture here? Why am I even comparing SQ to budget airlines? Why am I drawing comparisons between an airline which offers this:
And an airline for which the height of luxury is priority boarding?
SQ cites “local market practices” in determining how these fees are set. That’s wrong on two levels. First, it indirectly implies that the relevant market practice to benchmark themselves to is that of budget airlines. Second, I realise the data is somewhat out of date, but an audit by Visa in November 2012 found 2.8% of merchants were imposing surcharges or minimum spend policies for card usage. 2.8% is hardly market practice.
For those of you who may be wondering why I didn’t go as hard after SQ when they announced that some economy passengers would need to pay for seat selection, my answer to that is while it’s annoying, if you squint hard enough you can still make an argument that “ok, this at least benefits those who pay higher fares because they get first choice of seats”. Furthermore, anyone holding Krisflyer Elite Silver or higher could avoid the fee.
But these surcharges are different. They apply across the board. It doesn’t matter if you’re a regular Krisflyer member or a Lifetime Solitaire PPS. You still pay 1.3%. There is no way of spinning this, no amount of mental gymnastics or doublespeak that the Singapore Airlines corp comms team can come out with to make it sound like a benefit.
This is a money grab move by SQ, pure and simple. And for an airline that wants to position itself as a cut above the rest, it’s shameful that they’d dig from the bottom of the barrel when it comes to such policies.
Is this illegal?
Let’s be very careful about our terminology here. “Illegal” refers to something that breaks the law, and that’s not what this is. It is, however, a violation of the service agreement that exists between card issuers like Visa/Mastercard and the merchant.
History has shown us, however, that card issuers lack the ability to enforce the agreement. Does anyone remember 2013, when Visa withdrew acceptance from all taxi operators over the 10% surcharge they were levying on transactions? After a couple of years they backtracked on that move, and from 1 Jan 2016 Visa was once again accepted by taxi companies, still with the 10% surcharge.
Visa tried to save face over the climbdown by claiming that the landscape had changed and most people were using their Visa cards to pay via taxi booking apps and hence not incurring the surcharge anymore. But the fact remains that the taxi companies won.
It seems absurd to say a billion dollar enterprise like Visa doesn’t have sufficient clout to get merchants to play by the rules, but that’s exactly what this is. Visa can wield its enforcement team against small and medium enterprises, perhaps, but the big boys openly charge surcharges with impunity. And given that Visa has let the matter slide, I tend to conclude they don’t have the means or the will for stronger enforcement.
So yes, SQ’s move goes against the terms of its agreements with card issuers, but good luck relying on that to stop this from happening.
What can I do about it?
We can all get really angry on the internet! That’d show ’em!
Alternatively, you can:
Book via OTAs- The obvious answer would be to start looking at booking through OTAs like Expedia, assuming the ticket cost is the same. When SQ mentions that travel agents will also be subject to this fee, I believe they’re talking about offline travel agents like ASA Holidays. It’s silly in a way, because in an age where airlines and hotels are trying to incentivize people to book direct (Lufthansa charges a 16 Euro fee for anyone booking tickets via OTAs), Singapore Airlines is doing the exact opposite.
Use Paypal: Paypal transactions do not attract surcharges, so this is an option if you’d prefer to still use a credit card. I believe that using your DBS WWMC should earn you 4 mpd because Singapore Airlines will be using a merchant (as opposed to personal) Paypal account, but if anyone could confirm this that would be appreciated.
Use Shopback: If for whatever reason you don’t want to use Paypal, consider using Shopback’s 0.5% cashback because that at least offsets the 1.3% fee somewhat. You need to pay with Visa to enjoy the cashback.
Write to your MP: Also, start an online petition and write an angry letter to the ST Forum page because we know those things totally work.
It’s also worth noting that holders of the Krisflyer cobrand cardholders will be exempt from such fees, but nothing would annoy me more if SQ starts using this as a marketing point for the card as if it’s some big benefit. Remember also that the cobrand portfolio offers 2 mpd on SQ ticket purchases, well below the 3 and 4 mpd you could earn with the DBS Altitude and DBS WWMC respectively.
I suspect that this move will cause more than a few keyboard warriors to call for a boycott and swear off flying SQ. Let’s be realistic, such a move will accomplish little and when all is said and done, many people (myself included) will still pick SQ because of their superior product and schedule ex-SIN. I don’t like it, I don’t support what they’re doing, but what can I do? Besides, I can still circumvent the surcharge via OTAs or Paypal.
That to me is why this move is so cynical. SQ knows it’s got a captive market, that many people are SQ-or-bust types and that it has the most lucrative departure slots at Changi locked up. A 1.3% fee, while annoying, won’t be a deal breaker for many. Therefore, in so many words, they’re doing this because they can.
My bigger concern now is whether other airlines will follow suit for tickets ex-SIN. It’s still early days, but for what it’s worth I reached out to a Cathay Pacific spokesperson who confirmed that “we do not have plans to levy credit card transaction fees for bookings made on our website at the moment”. Watch this space, I suppose.
Conclusion: Race to the bottom
I think it’s no coincidence that the commencement date of the 1.3% surcharge implementation ties in with the start of the new fare buckets. SQ is clearly trialing a new direction, strategically, to see the extent to which it can have a full service product but a budget airline pricing model. And by budget airline pricing model I don’t mean cheap fares, I mean charging for everything that’s not nailed down.
Where will this lead us? Who knows, but I can guarantee you there’ll be more changes afoot in the near future. At a time where other developed countries are moving away from surcharges, it’s disappointing to see the opposite happening in Singapore.
Singapore Airlines for me will still continue to be a great way to fly. But they’re certainly doing all they can to burn some of their goodwill with customers.