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Summer airfares are soaring

An economic ‘perfect storm’ is driving up prices

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Photo (c) Izusek - Getty Images
If you haven’t booked your flight yet, your summer travel plans just got more expensive. The cost of commercial airline fares continued to rise last month, soaring 12.6% in May after increasing 18.6% in April.

While inflation is pushing up the cost of nearly everything, airfares face an economic “perfect storm.” After two years of the COVID-19 pandemic, millions of Americans are ready to travel again, so demand for airline tickets is higher than usual.

At the same time, airlines are facing a shortage of pilots. Many took early retirement at the start of the pandemic at the encouragement of their employers. COVID-19 also led to a reduction in training programs for new pilots.

And then there is the cost of fuel. Distillate prices have recently hit record highs, along with gasoline prices. An airline’s cost to fly from one city to another is significantly higher than six months ago.

But staff shortages may prove to be the biggest driver of high airfares because there will be fewer planes in the air this summer. Back in 2021, United fired about 1% of its workforce for not getting a COVID-19 vaccination.

Problem began pre-pandemic

The management consulting firm Oliver Wyman reports U.S. airlines were facing a growing pilot shortage in 2019, before the pandemic. It traces the problem to an aging workforce, barriers to entry and fewer pilots leaving the military – a significant source of new commercial pilots.

The problem was made worse by how airlines reacted to the pandemic. With a huge drop in business almost overnight, airlines canceled flights and encouraged older pilots to retire. United Airlines CEO Scott Kirby told analysts in April that he expects the pilot shortage could last for five years or more.

Now that people want to fly again, travel experts say there is more demand than supply, the classic ingredient for inflation. Willis Orlando, senior product operations specialist at Scott’s Cheap Flights, says demand is really what’s driving the current surge in airfares.

“The airlines are charging a premium right now for summer travel because they can, with demand through the roof,” Orlando told ConsumerAffairs. “But once demand levels out, as it does every autumn, prices should level out with it.”

In the meantime, Orlando says summer travelers should be as flexible as possible. For the best fares, he suggests traveling in the middle of the week and avoiding the most popular destinations.

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