Airfares hit highest level in years despite falling fuel prices

Hugo Martín, Los Angeles Times on

Published in Business News

"With two years of pent-up travel demand and missed holidays due to the pandemic, we're expecting to see significant demand over the 2022 holiday season," said Andrew Heritage, senior economist for Hopper. "In fact, more than half of Americans say they plan to travel for one or both of the holidays this year."

The average domestic round-trip airfare peaked at $404 in May and dropped to $286 in August, according to Hopper. But for the upcoming Thanksgiving holiday, the average round-trip airfare is about $350, up 22% compared with 2019, according to Hopper. The average domestic round-trip airfare for Christmas is $463, up 31% from 2019.

In addition to high fares, holiday travelers have to worry about delays and cancellations.

During the summer travel season, airline passengers endured a surge in flight delays and cancellations, which airlines blamed on COVID-19 outbreaks among their workforces, staff shortages and a large contingent of novice workers. The number of complaints about airline service filed with the U.S. Department of Transportation skyrocketed by 260% in July from July 2019.

To reduce delays and cancellations, airline executives cut flight capacity about 16% this summer and have vowed to keep the number of flights to a more manageable level this fall. Airlines have also been pushing to restore the staffing levels that shrank when workers retired early or were furloughed during the pandemic. U.S. airlines employed about 460,000 full-time equivalent workers in July, about 2.4% more than in July 2019.

But industry experts say it will take more time for the airlines to train staff and add enough planes to recover from the pandemic and significantly reduce the number of delays and cancellations.

"The structural issue that's been there is still going to be there," said Jonathan Kletzel, an airline industry expert at PwC. "There is high demand and not enough supply."

Airlines for America, a trade group that represents the nation's carriers, said the industry is still wrestling with repercussions from the pandemic.


"Our industry — like others across the economy — continues to face a range of challenges, including a tight labor market and increased absenteeism as our nation emerges from the pandemic," the group said in a statement.

The recent surge in airline prices has been noticed by air travelers, who are adjusting their travel plans to avoid getting hit too hard in the wallet.

"I've moved some travel from late November earlier because pricing around Thanksgiving was significantly higher," said Peter Saski, a frequent flier and co-founder of a New York capital advisory firm. A Christmas holiday trip from New York to Texas is going to cost him about 20% more than last year, he said.

But Saski hasn't been able to avoid the flight disruptions.

"I've had more delays in the past six weeks than expected that were due to maintenance or staffing," he said.

Saski said he tries to have backup flight plans to lower the risk of being stranded by delays or cancellations and opts for long drives over short flights.


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