What happened to those cheap airline tickets?
Fares are rising and fees are roaring back. Here's what's to do about it
Bad news: Those cheap airline tickets are gone.
The average domestic airfare hit $397 in the latest reported quarter, according to the Bureau of Transportation Statistics. It's the highest level in eight years.
But that's only part of the story. A new study says ancillary airline revenue — fees for luggage, seat reservations and early boarding — will rise an astounding 56 percent this year. Airlines will collect $102.8 billion worldwide from those extras in 2022.
So the actual cost of your ticket will be much higher.
By the way, that's a conservative estimate. Airlines Reporting Corp. (ARC), a company that provides ticket transaction settlement services between airlines and travel agencies, says ancillary transactions have increased 11 percent month-over-month in 2022 and 74 percent from last year.
Prices are up. Fees are up. But that's not all.
Airlines are making an obscene amount of money. And meanwhile, regular travelers like you and me have had to cancel or postpone our travel plans amid soaring prices. It's time for some justice, and in a moment, I will tell you how you can get some.
Don’t let them get away with it
Airlines rake in record profits
Airlines are flying less but making more.
American Airlines reported its sales surged 52 percent in the latest quarter to a record $13.5 billion. Remarkably, it did so while cutting capacity by almost 10 percent.
Delta Air Lines' quarterly revenue rose 3 percent to $12.8 billion. It did not report its capacity cuts, but this summer, it cut hundreds of flights, leaving passengers to scramble for another way to get there.
United Airlines' quarterly revenue was up 13 percent to $12.9 billion, solidly beating analysts' expectations. It also cut capacity by almost 10 percent.
At the same time, passengers are deeply unhappy with airline service. The latest JD Power rankings give the U.S. airline industry a cumulative score of 79 out of 100 — down 2 points from a year ago. If we were handing out grades, that would be a C+. And that was before this summer's inexcusable service meltdown.
Only 30 months ago, the airline industry was standing at our doorstep, hat in hand, asking for a bailout. American taxpayers gave them the biggest one ever — more than $80 billion. And in return, they've delivered bad customer service, unreliable flights, and record high fares.
How has this affected you?
If you are not fit to be tied yet, maybe you haven't flown in a while.
I've heard from readers who say flights are hundreds of dollars higher than they've ever seen, forcing them to cancel plans to visit their relatives for the holidays.
But the unluckiest ones go into debt to travel anyway and then deal with the reality of flying during the 2022 holidays: cancellations, lousy service and gratuitous fees.
There's no escaping the sense of betrayal. We rescued the airlines in 2020. We were understanding when they had to make service cuts during the pandemic. But then they turned their backs on us — and betrayed us — by raising fares and reducing service when COVD started to wind down.
How could they?
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It's time for some payback
The cuts, the price hikes, the disruptions — it's all led us to this point. And now the holiday travel season is starting, so it will probably get even worse.
If you're thinking of revenge, you're in good company. So am I.
If you have to fly, be smart about it
Have you learned to use fare tracking yet? It's easy to set up on Google Flights (just slide the button on the fare display to start tracking). You'll get an alert every time the fare changes. When the price is right, you can book. Pity the suckers who booked this flight from New York to Los Angeles a little over a month ago.
Report airlines' misdeeds
Sad fact: I receive about as many airline complaints as the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT). Yes, my little consumer advocacy organization does. I know it represents only a fraction of the actual complaints, and I'm fine with it. But the DOT should be hearing from more passengers. It's time to change that. If you have a negative experience on an airline, report it to the DOT.
Avoid air travel
But the best payback is to deny an airline your business. For goodness' sake, stop giving a company your money if it mistreats you and takes advantage of you. Find another way to get there. Take a train, take a bus, or drive. The only way airlines will get it is if they lose business. And the only way they'll lose business is if you deny them your business.
Where can I find cheap airline tickets?
Cheap tickets still exist, at least theoretically. Airline ticket pricing is unpredictable and often counterintuitive. It swings from periods of high demand and prices to low demand and includes fare sales.
Airlines publish the specials on their sites (here's Southwest's, for example). You can use a site like Versionista to track changes, which is much more reliable than signing up for a curated newsletter that only promotes the sales for which it's being compensated.
The US airlines quietly eliminated their cheap tickets at the end of the pandemic. They took the bailout money, cut service, and raised fares.
It's shameful. And it's time for some justice.
We need to get smarter and stop buying tickets from these predatory airlines. You can't take $80 billion for American taxpayers, give them almost nothing in return, and get away with it.
Or can you?
What's your payback strategy? Are you boycotting the U.S. airlines? Or are you going to wait for a rock-bottom fare and then book? Or maybe you think this is the free market at its best? I would love to hear your arguments. The comments are open.
About the art
Artist Dustin Elliott drew his inspiration for this piece from the 1987 movie Wall Street, in which Gordon Gekko (Michael Douglas) declared that "greed is good." "If Gordon Gekko ran America's airlines, he would love 2022," he says. Can't wait for the sequel.
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