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Originally published May 19, 2008 at 12:00 AM | Page modified May 19, 2008 at 12:09 PM

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Airfares offer no holiday for travelers

Brace yourself if you plan to be among the millions of Americans flying during the peak summer travel season. You'll be paying more for...

Seattle Times travel writer

When to fly at Sea-Tac

BEST TIME TO LEAVE SEA-TAC? The best chances of a flight departing on time from Seattle-Tacoma International Airport were between 6 a.m.-9 a.m., according to the U.S. Department of Transportation's figures for March travel, when just 12 percent of flights departed late.

The worst times for late takeoffs were between 2 p.m. and 3 p.m., when 30 percent of flights were delayed, and between 6 p.m.-10 p.m., when 35 percent of flights departed late.

Know before you go

CHECK OUT THESE Web sites before traveling:

• Rules for what you can and can't take in carry-on and checked bags: www.tsa.gov

• Flight cancellations/delays: www.portseattle.org (see "Sea-Tac Airport" and "Real-time flight information"). Also www.flightstats.com.

• Best and worst airplane seats: www.seatguru.com

• Airfare comparisons: www.kayak.com or www.mobissimo.com

• Fare predictions: www.farecast.com.

On-time performance

HOW LIKELY is your flight to arrive on time?

Nearly 30 percent of domestic flights operated by 19 of the nation's airlines arrived late in March, according to U.S. Department of Transportation.

Best on-time records were:

Hawaiian (95 percent of flights arriving on time)

US Airways (79 percent)

Alaska (78 percent)

SkyWest (78 percent)

Mesa (76 percent)

Worst were:

American (62 percent)

Comair (66 percent)

American Eagle (66 percent)

Express Jet (68 percent)

Continental (69 percent

Mishandled baggage

THE AIRLINES are improving when it comes to losing or damaging checked baggage, but the numbers still don't inspire confidence.

Complaints filed with 19 U.S. airlines fell to 6.66 per 1,000 domestic passengers in March, compared to 7.74 in March, 2007, according to the U.S. Department of Transportation's latest Air Travel Consumer Report.

Ranking at the bottom of 19 airlines surveyed were:

Atlantic Southeast (15.6)

Pinnacle (13.2)

American Eagle (12.74)

Comair (9.8)

Skywest (9.6)

The best were:

Hawaiian (2.4)

JetBlue (3.5)

AirTran (3.8)

Northwest (4.57)

United (4.8)

Alaska Airlines, the biggest carrier serving the Seattle-Tacoma area, ranked 6th best, reporting 5 complaints per 1,000 passengers.

For a copy of the DOT's report, see airconsumer.ost.dot.gov

Brace yourself if you plan to be among the millions of Americans flying during the peak summer travel season.

You'll be paying more for everything from checking your golf clubs to letting a child fly alone as the nation's airlines -- struggling with higher fuel costs -- pack planes, boost fees and raise fares even higher.

"If there's anything I've seen in the last three months, it has been mass confusion, with each airline tweaking their policies a little differently," said Tom Parsons, chief executive officer of BestFares.com, an Internet travel Web site. "If it has anything to do with a human, or even a pet for that matter, expect a fee."

Some examples:

• Seattle-based Alaska Airlines/Horizon Air, which flies nearly half of all passengers using Seattle-Tacoma International Airport, recently joined other major carriers in charging coach passengers extra for checking a second bag. Starting July 1, passengers who are not members of its elite frequent-flier program will pay an extra $25 each way for checking a second bag, including golf clubs and skis, on most domestic flights.

Alaska also joined others in boosting fees for children traveling alone. Starting May 21, the fee increases from $30 for nonstop flights and $60 for trips involving connections to $75 each way for all flights.

• Taking a pet as a carry-on now costs $100 each way, up from $75, on Delta Air Lines, currently in talks to acquire Northwest Airlines.

Delta also imposed a new $25 "handling charge" for any Delta award ticket booked through a Delta representative that includes a segment on another airline.

• Making a change on a nonrefundable fare ticket on United Airlines now costs $150 for North American flights, up from $100.

• Predictions are that it won't be long before more airlines start charging extra for aisle and window seats. US Airways began a program earlier this month called "Choice Seats," that calls for a $5 and up per-flight charge for aisle or window seats in the first several rows of coach.

With oil at well over $120 a barrel and predicted to head higher, James May, head of the Air Transport Association, a trade group representing U.S. airlines, said this week that jet-fuel prices are headed into "absolutely uncharted territory."

Concerned that price increases for tickets -- up an average of 7 percent in the first part of the year and expected to climb 10-15 percent in the high-demand summer season -- will drive away customers, airlines are looking for other ways to raise revenue.

"I just drove by the gas station and saw $3.50 a gallon, and said 'Holy cow,' " said Parsons, and that's in Texas where gas prices are lower than elsewhere. "Well, the airlines are saying 'Holy cow,' too."

One example: The cost of a round-trip fare to London includes $300 in fuel surcharges compared to $130 this time last year, he said. "Add taxes on top of that, and you're up to $450 before you even buy the ticket."

Adding to the potential headaches for travelers is a continued pattern of flight delays, mishandled baggage and fewer and fuller flights as airlines cut unprofitable U.S. destinations in favor of expanding international routes.

With air fares up and the economy weak, fewer Americans are expected to fly domestically this summer, so airlines can be expected to reduce the numbers of flights or switch to smaller planes on some routes.

Delays last summer helped make 2007 the second-worst on record for U.S. airlines, and things aren't looking much better so far this year.

Nearly 30 percent of flights in and out of U.S. airports in March arrived late, according to statistics compiled by the U.S. Department of Transportation. It was the worst March on record since the department started collecting comparable data in 1995.

Despite all this, travelers can still find ways to beat the system. Here are some tips to help you fly smarter this summer:

• Consider alternate airports. The difference in fares between flying into one airport versus another an hour away can add up to hundreds of dollars.

"The biggest words for this summer are flexibility, flexibility, flexibility," said BestFares' Parsons.

Example: The round-trip fare in mid-July from Seattle to Cincinnati, a major Delta Air Lines hub, is $720 compared to $460 between Seattle and Dayton, Ohio, 50 miles away. For a family of four, that's a savings of more than $1,000.

Travel midweek, if possible, when fares can be lower. Nonstop flights generally cost more than those with stopovers.

• Shop around for deals, but keep in mind what strings might be attached. The fare for a child traveling alone could add another $200 to a round-trip flight this summer, depending on the airline. Virgin America, which recently started competing with Alaska in the Seattle-California market, charges $40 each way while Alaska charges $75. Southwest doesn't charge.

Airlines also impose different age limits. Delta and Northwest define a minor as a child up to the age of 14. Other airlines say it's 11 or 12.

• Know when and when not to buy. Peak-season fares are high, but if passenger traffic continues to slow, airlines could begin sales. Already, heavy competition between Alaska Airlines and Virgin America, for example, has pushed June/July fares below $200 round-trip on flights between Seattle and San Francisco and Los Angeles.

Don't make the mistake of buying too far in advance, Parsons advised: "If you're going after Labor Day, I'd sit back, have a cup of coffee and wait."

• Do as much as possible online, from buying tickets to booking frequent-flier-award travel. Most airlines charge $10-$15 extra for booking travel on the phone or in person.

• Use search engines such as kayak.com and mobissimo.com that scan fares available through the airlines, online travel agencies (such as Expedia and Orbitz), and consolidators; but keep in mind no single Web site consistently offers the lowest fares. Sometimes the best deals might be on a no-frills airline such as Southwest, whose fares aren't on these sites.

• Pack efficiently. Avoid checking luggage, or limit yourself to one checked bag. Keep valuables in your carry-on, and lock any checked bags with a TSA-approved lock that security inspectors can open and relock.

• Take advantage of online check-in or use self-service kiosks at the airport to avoid long lines at ticket counters.

• Remember the power of gate agents to hand out free upgrades, change your seat or provide other last-minute services.

"Be nice to the gate agents, because they've been taking pay cuts, too," advised Parsons. "If you think you're going up there and using a lot of vinegar to get your way, you're mistaken. If I were you, I'd bring bottles of honey."

Carol Pucci: 206-464-3701 or cpucci@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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