Shopping for bargain flights? Good luck this summer
Expect some of the highest fares in memory this summer as mergers shrink competition and schedules are lean
Northwest travel guides
ATLANTA — Shopping for bargain flights this summer? Good luck with that.
Travelers can expect to see some of the highest fares in recent memory — a byproduct in part of airline mergers that have reduced the number of competitors nationally and shrunk flight schedules.
Prices for domestic flights from Atlanta are up 1.4 percent this year from last summer while Europe fares are up 6.1 percent, according to the Airlines Reporting Corp., which analyzes fares purchased from online travel agencies like Orbitz, Expedia and Travelocity, as well as from traditional travel agencies.
“If you want to leave on the most popular days and the most convenient flights, you’re probably going to pay the most you have in history,” said Rick Seaney, CEO of FareCompare.
The average round-trip ticket price from Atlanta to New York for summer travel this year is $311.63, up from $284.81 last year, according to the ARC data.
The airline industry says fares are still “an unmatched bargain” on an inflation-adjusted basis. And people with flexible schedules and time to book well in advance can often find lower options through diligent online shopping.
Fares have been pushed up in recent years in part by fuel costs, one of the biggest expenses at any carrier. Airlines also emerged from a round of bankruptcies a decade ago determined to fly at a higher financial altitude, which experts say is ultimately better for both the industry and consumers.
But the increases also coincide with consolidation that has cut the number of major players.
In Atlanta, hometown giant Delta Air Lines bought Northwest Airlines in 2008, and more recently, Southwest Airlines acquired AirTran Airways and its Atlanta hub in 2011.
When it had a sizable presence in Atlanta, “AirTran did put a damper on fares” in Atlanta, said George Hobica, founder of Airfarewatchdog.com. “They always forced Delta to lower fares, and that fact is no longer there.”
Delta, meanwhile, now holds more than 82 percent of the market share, up from closer to 70 percent six years ago. That means Atlanta’s two largest carriers control 93 percent of the market.
“What Atlanta needs is another low-cost carrier to get some base,” Hobica said.
As Delta gains market share, spokesman Trebor Banstetter said: “Atlanta is a very competitive market, and we feel like we have a unique product to offer to our customers.”
Seaney said the markets AirTran and Southwest no longer fly to — such as Atlanta to Charlotte and to Tampa — will likely see the biggest fare increases because of the reduced competition.
“There’s the winners and losers, and certainly those routes that got dropped are going to be big losers in this,” Seaney said.
Southwest spokesman Chris Mainz said the decisions to leave a market are “difficult.”
Elsewhere, United has merged with Continental and American has merged with US Airways, leaving four large carriers that divvy up most national traffic.
But there are deals to be had in some markets, such as low fares last month for flights to the Caribbean, Hobica said.
“There are still going to be fare wars between United, Delta, Southwest and American, but they’re just not the way they used to be when we had 10 fairly large airlines,” Hobica said.
Travelers should start shopping for flights three months out for the best prices, consider flying on the cheapest days — Tuesday, Wednesday and Saturday — and at the cheapest times — 6 a.m., noon and 6 p.m., Seaney said.
“Airlines are charging a significant premium for their most convenient nonstops,” Seaney said. “Plus, international flying is extremely expensive.”
One strategy when flying to Europe is to fly to an alternate city and then take a low-cost carrier or train to your destination city, said Patrick Surry, chief data scientist for Hopper.com. Taking a flight within Europe can be cheaper than the premium paid for a flight to a high-demand city, he said.
In Europe, “it’s a really competitive market,” Surry said. “You’ve got all these different national and international carriers.”