Md. refueling rules may become model

Accord caps rental firms' fees to gas up returned cars

June 13, 2008|By Laura McCandlish | Laura McCandlish,SUN REPORTER

Maryland's new agreement with rental car companies setting price caps on gas charges for cars returned with less than a full tank could become a catalyst for new refueling policies nationwide, state officials said yesterday.

The agreements, which will shave refueling charges by as much as a third, mean Maryland will have one of the lowest rental vehicle refueling charges in the country, according to AAA Mid-Atlantic. But even with the agreements, consumers will still be paying a hefty premium over pump prices if they don't fill up themselves.

Maryland Attorney General Douglas F. Gansler said the rental companies agreed to the reductions after the state threatened to fine or sue the companies for violating Maryland's transportation code, which requires "reasonable" rental fees.

"Our position is we could go to a jury and say, 'Charging $8 a gallon for $4 gas would not be reasonable,'" Gansler said at a news conference yesterday at the rental car facility at Baltimore-Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport. "Everybody who rents a car thinks these fees are outrageous. ... We hope [the agreements] become a national model."

Beginning July 1, the state's eight major rental car companies will charge customers returning cars in Maryland no more than 42 percent over local pump prices. Hertz, the largest rental car company, agreed to charge no more than 35 percent more - or $5.40 when pump prices are $4 - or a $10 flat fee.

Hertz now charges BWI customers $7.99 a gallon, the highest in Maryland and around the country, Gansler said.

Hertz announced this week a nationwide program beginning July 1 to charge market rates plus a $6.99 service charge to refuel.

"What we're offering is better than what Maryland is proposing," Hertz spokeswoman Paula Rivera said. "Customers were telling us the refueling options are definitely confusing and they can be expensive. We're aiming to cut some of the hassles out of the car rental experience."

Hertz will also offer customers who purchase a full tank of gas at the outset of the rental a discount of about 15 cents a gallon off market rates.

Other rental car companies, such as Avis and Thrifty, said they hadn't yet decided whether to reduce refueling rates across the country.

"We will continue to monitor the response among our competitors to see if this is something that breaks nationwide," said Chris Payne, spokesman for Thrifty and Dollar Rent A Car. "But at this time, Dollar Thrifty Automotive Group is limiting this policy to Maryland."

Advocates from the Consumer Federation of America and AAA said customers should still try to fill up rentals themselves before returning the car to save the most money. "The bottom line is you're always going to pay a penalty if you don't refuel yourself," said Jack Gillis, the federation's director of public affairs.

Maryland's agreement will reduce the hassle for travelers, many from out of state, who are running late or don't know where gas stations close to the airport are, said Lon Anderson, government relations director for AAA Mid-Atlantic.

"We all know that we don't get the best deal when we return the tank half empty," Anderson said at the BWI briefing. "But is it fair that we should have to pay $7.99 a gallon?"

Gansler said he decided to push for refueling rate relief after renting a car on a business trip to Mississippi last fall. When he picked up the rental car at the Memphis airport, Gansler said he was astonished by the high fees. He then started meeting with rental companies in December to pursue the new agreements.

Enterprise, which owns National and Alamo car rentals, was the exception, Gansler said. Last week Enterprise's refueling rate at BWI was $5.20 a gallon.

Most customers interviewed at BWI yesterday said they still planned to gas up themselves.

"I'm going to fill it up myself -it's still cheaper," said Wanda McGuffy, a New Orleanian in town for her son's basketball tournament.

But Felipe Macias, a salesman from Houston, said he is too rushed on business trips to stop at a gas station to fill up. He had Hertz refuel the car. "When you're in a rush to get here, you have no other option," he said.

laura.mccandlish@baltsun.com

New refueling rates

Enterprise/National/ Alamo, up to 133 percent of average price per gallon of gasoline

Hertz, up to 135 percent of market price, or flat rate of up to $10 per vehicle

Thrifty/Dollar Rent A Car, up to 135 percent, or up to $10 per vehicle

Avis/Budget, up to 142 percent of market price

Source:Attorney General's Office

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