High fares, full flights await air travelers this summer

BUSINESS DIGEST

May 14, 2008|By Cox News Service

WASHINGTON - Air fares are going up and planes will be full this summer because carriers have cut back on flights to reduce their fuel costs, the airline industry said yesterday.

Airlines and airports hope to avoid the delays that afflicted last summer's vacation travel, but much depends on the weather and whether improvements are made at the three major New York-area airports from which problems spread quickly across the whole country, according to the industry forecast.

"We're going to face a challenging summer," said James C. May, president and CEO of the Air Transport Association of America, the trade organization representing the major U.S. airlines.

"We know that summer travel can be stressful for passengers," said Greg Principato, president of the Airports Council International-North America, which represents the nation's airports. He promised that airports will strive to meet the needs of passengers when delays do occur.

Prices of jet fuel have reached record highs - nearly $170 a barrel, a 63 percent increase over last year - so "a rise in fares is inevitable," May said at a news conference. Current ticket prices "are not coming close" to covering these rising costs, he said.

About 2.7 million fewer Americans are expected to take commercial flights this summer than last - 211.5 million compared with 214.2 million in the summer of 2007, May said. He blamed the 1.3 percent decline on a weakening economy.

"People are worried about the economy and their own financial condition, so they're delaying their travel plans," said David Stempler, president of the Air Travelers Association, an advocacy group for airline passengers. "They're weighing the price of gas - how much it will cost them to drive versus flying, whether they'll have to rent a car when they get there. Everyone is just very concerned about the future."

However, fewer passengers will not result in more empty seats. Airlines are reducing the number of domestic flights by about 1.9 percent so the planes that do fly will be about 85 percent full - the same "load factor" as last summer.

"You'll either be in the middle seat or next to someone in the middle seat. That's not going to change," Stempler said in a telephone interview.

The full planes make it more important to keep flights on time and especially to avoid canceled flights, May said. There are fewer empty seats for rerouted passengers who missed connections because of delays or whose original flights were canceled.

"With an 85 percent load factor, it's difficult to re-accommodate passengers," explained May.

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