December 6, 2023

Sticker Shock for Travelers as Airfares Climb

But with the lowest economy-class fare this year advertised at about $1,500 — more than twice the $700 she paid in 2009 — Ms. Benjamin is considering ringing in 2011 with her husband’s family in decidedly chillier Belgrade. Flights there cost half as much as those to the Caribbean.

“It’s hard for me to bite the bullet when it’s only 1,700 miles,” from Washington to Antigua, she said. “That’s just under 90 cents per mile.”

As Ms. Benjamin and others have been discovering in recent months, airfares in most of the world are on the rise as the global economy picks up and demand for air travel climbs, particularly for business trips. Airlines, meanwhile, have been reluctant to add more flights to meet that growing demand. That is increasing pressure on ticket prices and making for packed planes and longer standby lines as the year-end travel season approaches.

This has been a boon, of course, for an industry that is expected to roar back into profit this year, to the tune of $8.9 billion. That comes after airlines collectively lost nearly $26 billion during the previous two years, according to the International Air Transport Association, an airline industry group. Many of the world’s leading airlines are reporting that the three-month period ended Sept. 30 was one of their most profitable quarters in years.

The degree of sticker shock varies significantly by region and by class of seat, with fares on some routes still at or below those of a year ago, despite some large increases in traffic.

Average domestic and international fares worldwide are up by less than 4 percent from a year ago, according to figures from the transport association. And while fares may continue rising for some time, industry executives say the increases next year are likely to be smaller.

Travelers in North America have experienced the steepest price gains, particularly for business travel. Average one-way fares for business- and first-class travel within North America have soared this year. They were up a staggering 140 percent from a year earlier, to $676 in August, a peak travel month and the most recent for which the transport association has data available. Economy fares rose 3.6 percent.

Fares between the United States and Europe also rose sharply, especially for economy-class seats. The average one-way fare in August was $455, a rise of 20 percent from a year earlier, while the average premium-class fare was $2,087, an increase of 11 percent.

“It’s really hard to find the $600 tickets anymore,” said Philip Guarino, 40, an American who runs a consulting business in Milan and Boston. “The basic fare from the East Coast to Europe is closer to $1,000, and most likely closer to $1,200.”

A business-class ticket to Milan costs about $3,400, he said, compared with about $2,400 four years ago. “The pricing now in business is at my upper limit,” he said.

Elsewhere, economy-class fares between Europe and Asia have risen 10 percent from 2009, according to the transport association, while those between North and South America have increased about 13 percent.

“All of the airlines have done a good job, as demand has picked up, of not adding very many more seats,” said Christa Degnan Manning, head of research at American Express Business Travel. “I expect them to continue to manage that very closely.”

Dan Hodgdon, 44, said he had given up trying to fly between the Bangkok offices of his spa-supply business, which is based in Los Angeles, and his vacation home in southern France because fares on the route had become “ridiculously” high.

Referring to the Los Angeles airport, he said, “It is far less expensive now to fly from LAX to anywhere in Europe than from Bangkok.”

“This was not always the case in early 2009,” he added.

Travelers in other parts of the world can still find good deals. Within the Asia-Pacific region, for example, the average one-way economy-class fare was $318 in August, a decrease of 0.4 percent from August 2009, while premium-class tickets were nearly 2 percent less expensive, despite a 26 percent jump in traffic on those routes.

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