Many travelers on social media think they are being scammed. It’s an understandable sentiment when government data shows airfares in October rose 43% from a year earlier, and U.S. airlines reported combined profits of more than $2.4 billion in the third quarter.
Part of the reason for the higher prices is that airlines are still operating fewer flights than in 2019 even though passenger numbers have almost returned to pre-pandemic levels.
“Fewer flights and more people looking to go home or take a vacation vacation means two things: Prices will be higher, and we’ll see flights sell out on both holidays,” says Holly Berg, chief economist at travel data provider Huber.
Julia Barr knows exactly what Berg is talking about. An Annandale, Virginia woman has struggled to find an affordable flight home for her young son, who is spending Thanksgiving with his grandmother in Texas while visiting her husband’s bar, who is doing active military service in California. I finally found a $250 one-way ticket in Southwest, but it wasn’t until the Tuesday after the holiday.
Barr says she waited too long to book a flight.
“My husband’s kids are traveling home for Christmas,” she said. “These tickets were bought a long time ago, so it’s not too bad.”
Prices for air travel and accommodation usually rise as the holidays approach, and it happened earlier this year. This is prompting some travelers in Europe to book shorter flights, according to Axel Heffer, CEO of Germany-based hotel search company Trivago.
“Hotel rates are absolutely high everywhere,” he said. “If you have the same budget or even a lower budget through inflation, and you still want to travel, you’re cutting a day.”
Hotels suffer from labor shortages, which is another reason for the high prices. Glenn Vogel, CEO of Booking Holdings, which owns travel research sites including Priceline and Kayak, says a hotel employee told him he couldn’t fill all his rooms because he didn’t have enough staff.
Car rental rates haven’t been as crazy as they were during most of 2021, when vehicles at some of the popular locations ran out. However, vehicle availability is limited because the cost of new cars has prevented rental companies from rebuilding the entire fleets they prepared early in the pandemic.
US consumers are facing the highest rate of inflation in 40 years, and there is growing concern about a possible recession. However, this does not appear in the travel figures.
Passengers passing through airport checkpoints recovered to nearly 95% of traffic in 2019, according to October Transportation Security Administration figures. Travel industry officials say holiday travel may be above pre-pandemic levels.
The airlines haven’t always done a good job of handling large crowds, even though they have been hiring workers to replace those who left after being hit by COVID-19. Rates of canceled and delayed flights have risen from pre-pandemic levels this summer, causing airlines to slow plans to add more flights.
US airlines operated just 84% of US flights as they did in October 2019, and are planning for about the same percentage in December, according to travel data company Cirium. On average, airlines are using larger planes with more seats this year, which is partially offsetting the drop in flights.
“We’re definitely seeing a lot of steam in the holiday season,” Andrew Nosella, United Airlines’ chief commercial officer, said on the company’s October earnings call. “We’re approaching the Thanksgiving time frame, and our bookings are incredibly strong.”
Airlines executives and Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg have blamed each other for flying problems common over the summer. Airlines CEOs say that now that they hire more pilots and other workers, they’re ready for the holidays.
Travel experts offer tips to save money and avoid getting stranded due to a flight cancellation, although the advice hasn’t changed much from previous years.
Be flexible about dates and even destinations, although this is not possible when visiting Grandma’s house. In a recent research, the cheapest flights from Los Angeles to New York were on the Christmas holidays on Christmas Eve and back on New Year’s Eve.
Look at discount airlines and alternative airports, but know that smaller airlines have fewer options to rebook passengers after a flight is cancelled.
Travel early in the day to reduce the risk of delays or cancellations. “If something goes wrong, it tends to progress throughout the day — it becomes a domino effect,” says Chuck Thaxton, general manager of Airlines Reporting Corp., an intermediary between airlines and travel agents.
There are plenty of theories about the best day of the week to book travel. It’s Sunday because airlines know this is a time when many price-conscious consumers are shopping, and carriers are tailoring packages for them, Thaxton says.
For the most part, airlines have evaded accusations of price gouging that have circulated around oil companies — which were met with yet another rebuke this week from President Joe Biden — and other industries.
Responsible United States, an advocacy group critical of companies, has linked airline delays and cancellations this summer to job cuts during the pandemic and mistreatment of workers. “But overall, we would say the airline industry is not currently on the same level as big food, oil or retail in terms of gross profit,” says Jeremy Funk, a spokesman for the group.
Prices are high simply because flights are down from 2019 while demand is booming, says Brett Snyder, who runs a travel agency and writes the “Cranky Flier” blog about air travel.
“How is it manipulated?” Snyder asks. “They don’t want to[take off]with empty seats, but they also don’t want to sell everything for one dollar. It’s a basic economy.”
Travelers sacrifice in order to reduce the cost of their flights.
Chyna Hill and her daughter Krista Bale got up at 3 a.m. and left their home in northwest Indiana an hour later for a 6:25 a.m. flight in Chicago last week.
“We’re exhausted,” Hill said after the plane landed in Dallas, where Krista was participating in an exhilarating competition. “We started early because early flights were much cheaper. Flights are very expensive.”
They are not going anywhere at Christmas.
“We don’t have to travel,” Hill said.
David Koenig can be reached at www.twitter.com/airlinewriter