Air travel in the summer could be expensive and messy. This is how you avoid trouble

Travelers queue as they make their way through the north security checkpoint in the main terminal at Denver International Airport on Thursday, May 26, 2022.

David Zalubowski/AP

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David Zalubowski/AP

Travelers queue as they make their way through the north security checkpoint in the main terminal at Denver International Airport on Thursday, May 26, 2022.

David Zalubowski/AP

CHICAGO — At airports this summer, it may almost seem as if the pandemic never happened. The long security lines, the crowded gates, the crowded planes; they are all back. And with it also rising prices and additional fees.

“Airfares for domestic travel are incredibly high this summer,” says Hayley Berg, chief economist at travel search and data app Hopper. “We’re seeing airfares this week average about $394 round-trip for domestic flights per ticket.”

According to Berg, that’s about 50% more than last summer and nearly 25% higher than pre-pandemic summer 2019 airfares.

A new report from Adobe Analytics released today finds that domestic flight prices have increased by 47% since January. The company measures online domestic flight bookings across six of the top 10 US airlines and 150 billion travel site visits, and finds that consumers spent $8.3 billion on air travel in May, up 6.2% from the month April. Adobe data shows that fares for flights booked in May were 30% higher than in May 2019, the year many in the industry use to benchmark against the pre-pandemic.

“It’s really impressive to see, especially given that we rode air travel early in the pandemic and for much of the past two years,” said Vivek Pandya, senior analyst at Adobe Digital Insights. “Now we’re seeing strong demand coupled with high prices,” which aren’t cooling the red-hot demand for air travel just yet.

“These higher airfares aren’t deterring travelers, and that’s true (for travel) both domestically and internationally,” says Hopper’s Hayley Berg. “Consumers are willing to pay the higher fares to get away this summer.”

One of the biggest factors driving up airfares is the skyrocketing price of kerosene. According to Berg, rising crude oil prices have more than doubled kerosene prices since 2019.

Another factor is “a huge uptick in demand for travel after two years of very, very depressed travel,” says Berg, at a time when “there’s less capacity out there than there was in 2019.”

“Look, there’s a lot of people who haven’t been able to travel where they want, how they want for two years,” says travel analyst Henry Harteveldt of the Atmosphere Research Group, who notes that flight bookings are back to where they were before Pandemic levels are up, but “we’re still more than 10% down on the number of flights we had pre-COVID.”

“And that means less choice, and less choice means fewer seats,” adds Harteveldt. “Also, some airlines don’t operate as many widebody jets…that also means fewer seats.”

He and others say travelers who haven’t booked their summer trip yet may be better off postponing their vacation until fall, when airfares are likely to come down and there may be more flights to choose from.

“It will be a ‘Hunger Games’-like fight for the desired fares and flights,” says Harteveldt this summer. “And the concern I have is that in the industry there is absolutely no wiggle room, no wiggle room if and when things go wrong.”

And Harteveldt points out that in the summer, things like bad weather and airline staff shortages can lead to flight chaos, with widespread flight delays and cancellations.

That happened over the busy Memorial Day weekend, when airlines canceled thousands of flights and delayed thousands more.

So airlines are trying to be proactive and canceling flights from their summer schedules to minimize delays and cancellations.

“Due to existing staffing shortages, particularly pilots, airlines have reduced the number of flights they will be operating this summer to keep a buffer of extra pilots, extra flight attendants and extra aircraft in case there’s a severe storm or something other things disrupt their operations,” says Harteveldt.

Delta Air Lines, which has had a particularly high number of cancellations in recent weeks, has now cut more than 100 flights a day from its schedule for the remainder of the summer. American, United, Southwest, JetBlue, Alaska and other airlines have also reduced their summer schedules.

Almost all of them have had regular disruptions to operations over the past year, says Kathleen Bangs of flight-tracking firm FlightAware, whose data shows the seven largest US airlines had canceled 3% of all their flights this year through May.

“Anything above about 1% pre-COVID we thought that was a pretty high number,” says Bangs. “So that’s been high this year and it’s good that airlines have scaled back a bit because demand has increased so much.”

What do the experts recommend so that you are not stranded by flight delays and cancellations?

Bangs says she advises people to get a good weather app and look ahead at the forecasts for the days they plan to travel.

“They have forecasts 14 days ahead, (and) you can certainly get a pretty good idea of ​​what the weather is going to be like 7 days ahead,” says Bangs.

She adds that it’s important to look at forecasts not just for the places you fly to and from, but for the whole country, as storms in one place have a ripple effect and cause delays and cancellations across an airline’s network being able to lead.

According to Bangs, airlines can allow travelers to change their flight to a day or two before or after the days when storms are forecast.

“If you contact the airline about these events, there’s a good chance they’ll take that into account (flight change) and post that (information) on their websites,” Bangs says.

She also recommends booking flights directly with the airline so you have a better chance of solving an issue should one arise.

“I feel sorry for these internet search companies that sell tickets, but you really want to buy your ticket directly from the airlines because if there’s a problem, it’s so much easier to get the airlines to work with you,” says Bangs . “But if you’re buying that through a third party, it’s very difficult to make those changes,” she adds.

To find cheaper fares, experts recommend being flexible with your travel plans.

“If you fly later in August, you can save about $100 per ticket on top-line fares,” says Hopper’s Hayley Berg. “If you can fly in the middle of the week, say on a Tuesday or Wednesday, you can save about $35 or more on a domestic flight. So flexibility is really key to finding great deals if you haven’t booked your summer holiday yet.”

Additionally, many travel experts advise planning ahead as if things could go wrong as summer air travel chaos is almost inevitable.

“Any of us planning to travel this summer has to assume that something is going to go wrong and be happy when it isn’t,” says Harteveldt.

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