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Gansler, Rental Car Firms Set Refuel Fee Limits

By Lisa Rein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, June 12, 2008

There's something even more costly these days than putting gasoline in your car: Filling up a rental car's tank.

Maryland Attorney General Douglas F. Gansler (D) is scheduled to announce relief today for Maryland rental car customers. Under an agreement negotiated by Gansler's office, the refueling fees on cars returned to the lot with an empty or partially empty tank will be reduced. Those fees hit $7.99 a gallon last week at Baltimore-Washington International Marshall Airport.

"There's absolutely no business justification" for high fees, said Gansler, who is scheduled to announce the deal with major rental companies today at BWI. "It's a punitive, unreasonable and outrageous penalty for consumers who are already paying more than $4 a gallon for gas."

Rental companies charge refueling fees to customers who are rushing to catch a plane or who forgot to fill up before returning the cars. Under the agreement with the attorney general's office, eight companies from Hertz to Thrifty will still charge extra, but the fee in Maryland will not exceed 35 percent of the local market price of a full-service gallon of gasoline, or a flat rate of $10 per vehicle. Gansler said the deal leaves Maryland with the country's lowest refueling rates.

Until the agreement compliance date of July 1, though, the refueling charges will remain: $7.89 a gallon at Avis, $7.69 at Budget, $7.19 at Dollar and Thrifty, according to a survey by Gansler's office last week. Representatives for several rental car companies could not be reached for comment yesterday.

The state's lease agreement between the airport and the rental companies requires them to charge "reasonable" refueling rates. Gansler's office had leverage over the industry to negotiate the price relief because the refueling charges may violate state regulations, and he threatened the companies with daily fines if they did not lower their charges.

Last-minute refueling has always cost customers more, but the base price of gasoline hasn't always been more than $4 a gallon.

"The thought that you're paying $8 for a gallon of gas, which is double what any motorist can buy gas for in Maryland, that's taking advantage of the consumer," said Lon Anderson, director of public affairs for the Mid-Atlantic chapter of the American Automobile Association.

Refueling works like this: When customers pick up their cars, they can prepay to have the company refuel the vehicles upon return -- at local market prices. Or the customer may fill it. The price shock hits when a customer has not prepaid, and a car is returned with an empty, or near-empty, gas tank.

"People are paying more for gas than it costs them to rent the car," said Gansler, who discovered the high refueling prices on a recent business trip to Mississippi. As he rented a car at the Memphis airport, he noticed a sign at the counter listing the refueling price at $8 a gallon. Six months of negotiations with the major rental companies in Maryland resulted in the agreement to be announced today.

Enterprise Rent-a-Car is abiding by the lower refueling prices, adding 33 percent to local market per-gallon prices for a rate of $5.20 at BWI last week. The company bought Alamo Rent-a-Car and National Car Rental last year, both of whom charge the same.

"We're pleased we've been taking care of our customers all along," said Christy Conrad, vice president for corporate communications for Enterprise, based in St. Louis.

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