If you are planning to take your first post-Covid flight soon, be prepared for some dramatic sticker shock. Really dramatic — like first-class-prices-for-coach-class -tickets dramatic. A friend recently posted about her depressing search for a fairly routine cross-country flight that used to cost around $400 — she was quoted around $1,100.
That got me looking, and I’m sad to report that it’s pretty easy to find four-digit plane tickets on domestic flights right now, like this one: the only available non-stop morning flight from Washington D.C. (DCA) to Seattle on May 8 cost $1,278 round trip (and only 3 left!). The evening flight cost $783. Passengers willing to stop in New York on the way can get tickets for about $600.
Get used to it, warns William J. McGee, Aviation Adviser for Consumer Reports. Airlines are cashing in on pent-up travel demand.
“What I fear is that in a few months that $1,000 fare will start to look good,” he said to me.
Real time data and apples-to-apples comparisons on airline ticket prices are hard to come by — there are so many variables to consider. Government ticket price data lags far behind. Travel company Hopper told Bloomberg recently that domestic round-trip flights in the US are up 36% from the beginning of 2022 and about equal with 2019 figures. But that might not really capture what’s happening in the real world, or what will happen to you on your flight.
Basically, McGee said, any route where there isn’t stiff competition is seeing skyrocketing prices.
“If I’ve learned anything in the 36 years I’ve spent working in, writing about, and advocating about the airline industry, it’s that the major carriers price tickets based on how much they can get away with on any given route,” he said. “This isn’t my opinion, it’s borne out by decades of data from the (U.S. Department of Transportation.”
Airlines are pointing to higher fuel prices as part of the reason for higher fares, but they aren’t hiding their glee that ticket sales are booming. Delta’s chief executive Ed Bastian told Reuters recently the airline posted its highest single-week ticket sales ever.
“We’ve not seen a stronger demand … in my career,” he said.
That’s why consumers should pay attention to what’s happening, McGee said.
“In recent years passenger loads .. load factors ..have been at highs not seen since the airlines were troop carriers during World War II. I believe this summer is going to set all-time high passenger load factors. And all those full planes are a strong indication that fares are going to be rising across the board,” he warned.
With prices this high, consumers have another issue to worry about: airlines tend to be … let’s say .. less concerned about customer service during times of high demand. Consumer Reports has called on Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg to push forward a passenger’s Bill of Rights to deal with a flood of complaints.
“According to the Department of Transportation, 111,018 flights were canceled during 2021. Flight disruptions have continued this year and are expected to get even worse with the coming summer travel season. Millions of impacted passengers have faced uncertainty over rebookings, refunds, and accommodations,” a petition sent to the Transportation Department said. “While the airlines have pointed to bad weather in many cases, staff shortages caused by industry furloughs, encouraged early retirements, and outsourcing have compounded these problems.”
RED TAPE WRESTLING TIPS
What should consumers do about this? McGee warned against hewing too closely to familiar advice about booking on allegedly slower travels days like Tuesdays or planning Saturday overnight stays. With prices rising so quickly, most of that advice won’t work. He strongly recommends planning early and buying tickets as soon as possible.
“In fact, that’s what I’m doing for two trips I have planned this summer,” he said. “I think the combination of pent-up demand and tighter capacity …due to crew shortages… is a formula that is going to keep seats full through the summer. As for post-Labor Day? I wouldn’t venture to guess right now. In this environment that strikes me as trying to predict 10 years out. Too much change occurring at once–high demand, high fares, crew shortages, Covid rules changing almost daily. But the summer seems like it’s going to be three months of no empty middle seats. I could be wrong, but I think that’s the most likely outcome right now.”