Quandary for air travelers

Book now or risk higher fares, fewer choices

August 10, 2008|By Tricia Bishop | Tricia Bishop,Sun reporter

So it's August.

Prime time for picnics and pool parties. It's also time to plan end-of-the-year holiday travel.

Seriously. Now.

Airlines plan to significantly cut flights after Labor Day, decreasing seating by 10 percent, while increasing ticket prices. And those prices are likely to continue rising through the fall, industry watchers said, with flights for Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year's filling up fast.

If you wait to book, you run the risk of paying more for a slim selection.

"As someone who has been working in the travel industry since 1981, I've never - even after 9/11 - seen conditions this severe," said Henry Harteveldt, an airline analyst with Forrester Research. "The Scarlett O'Hara 'fiddle dee dee, I'll think about this tomorrow' mentality won't work."

The ailing economy is to blame - the spillover from the credit crunch and mortgage crisis - but especially the soaring price of oil.

Flight schedules are in flux at BWI and other airports. Many carriers have already raised airfares, by 12 percent this summer over last, Travelocity said. They're also charging for things that used to be included, like snacks and luggage. Half of the country's eight major airlines now charge for the first checked bag, and seven of them (all but Southwest) charge for the second.

All of it has combined to make this year one of the worst for holiday travel, whatever the mode. Drivers will be hit by gas prices at the pump. And train travelers will have to deal with crowded cars filled by former fliers.

"I think it's more difficult for people that are young," said Joyce Racheotes, 60, who lives in Cape Cod and is semi-retired from the financial services industry. She was at the Baltimore airport last week to pick up her niece on the way to San Francisco - a high school graduation gift.

"They're trying to raise a family, they have huge mortgages," she said. "I can see them having trouble going to the grocery store," much less flying.

While the average traveler began to look at flights for Thanksgiving a week ago, and the early birds are already checking out Christmas and New Year's, the fares have scared off some from booking. They're holding out hope that prices will go down.

"They're getting sticker shock," said Mary Levin, who owns Royal Travel Planners, a Baltimore travel agency. Her business is slower this year, she said, because customers "don't want to put that money down."

Still, prices are likely to keep rising, said Genevieve Shaw Brown, a senior editor and blogger for Travelocity. And that makes it "more important this year than even years past to book as early as you can," she added.

But there could be headaches for the early birds, too, because many airlines are trimming the number of flights they'll offer given the soft economy. That means the flight you book today might wind up altered later as kinks are worked out of the system, which could wreak havoc on your connections. That happened in the spring, when safety concerns led American, Southwest, United and Midwest airlines to ground planes.

"You have to be aware that not all of the cuts have come into play yet," Brown said.

At Baltimore-Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport last week, Erica Rupar and her husband were headed to friends' wedding and hadn't even thought about the holidays. Rupar's constantly changing schedule - she's a resident at Children's Medical Center in Washington - makes planning impossible.

That means they might not get to see her family in Detroit over Thanksgiving if fares rise too high.

The number of daily flights at BWI has been pretty steady throughout the year, and the airport is on track for its third consecutive record year, spokesman Jonathan Dean said. But he realizes the goal might be derailed.

"We've had very solid growth, but looking forward, particularly after the summer, the airport is likely to see the numbers drop off a bit as the airlines trim their capacity," Dean said. "And with the increase in airfare, demand will likely drop as well."

How much demand will be affected is "the joker in the deck, the unknown," said Daniel M. Kasper, managing director of LECG, which tracks the airline industry. "There's no doubt that there will be less demand because prices are higher, [which could lead to] additional fare reductions, but I wouldn't count on that."

That's among the reasons Louise Hochard is glad her daughter just graduated from the University of Miami. It means Hochard won't have to spend $500 flying Melinda home each holiday, and she won't have to worry about rising fares.

"Thank God," Hochard said at BWI last week. She and her daughter, who live in Massachusetts, were on their way to meet Hochard's son.

The "crazy deals" people saw after the Sept. 11 attacks in 2001 might be gone for good, said Tom Parsons, who runs discount travel site Bestfares.com. "We got pretty spoiled ... because every airline and its brother was begging for us to fly them."

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