With airline profits soaring, travelers may feel the squeeze
DALLAS — Good times are finally back for the nation’s airlines. For travelers, that means it’s getting harder to find bargains.
The summer travel season got off to a roaring start, fares are up, and money is rolling in from fees on such things as checked baggage.
The six biggest US airlines earned about $1.3 billion in the second quarter, and more profits are expected for the rest of the year. Even so, airlines are still woozy from the one-two punch of record-high fuel prices followed by a recession. Those six big carriers lost $22.7 billion in 2008 and 2009. And that’s just a portion of the $63.35 billion that US passenger airlines lost from 2001 to 2009, according to the Transportation Department.
There were plenty of fare sales when the airlines were struggling to fill seats. Now those seats are in demand, so deals are less common.
Here’s a look at what travelers can expect in the months ahead:
■ FARES AND FEES: The airlines are hooked on fees after two years of using them to overcome high fuel prices and slumping travel demand. A new study shows that worldwide, carriers took in $13.5 billion from fees in 2009, a 43 percent jump in just one year.
Airlines have been able to boost ticket prices, too. Summer fares are up an average of 18 percent, according to figures from a trade group for the big airlines.
■ PACKED PLANES: Planes are stuffed like never before. Including regional flights, Delta filled 88 percent of its seats in June, Continental sold 87 percent, and American 86 percent — that’s about 2 percentage points higher than last summer.
Continental has hinted that demand is trailing off. Advance bookings for the next six weeks are running behind the last year’s pace.
Normally when airlines start making money after a slump, they’re tempted to add new flights.
This time might be different. Sluggish bookings and concern about the weak economic recovery will put pressure on airlines not to add flights that might operate half-empty.
■ LABOR: Several large US airlines are in the middle of labor negotiations that could lead to higher costs and even disruptions for travelers.
The most acute problems are at American, where flight attendants and some ground workers are talking openly about possible strikes this fall.