U.S. airlines are hiking fares as leisure travelers who stayed home amid the economic malaise are getting back in the air.
In the last two weeks, carriers have raised domestic plane tickets twice by an average of $10 to $20 one way and are offering fewer fare sales, according to travel website Farecompare.com.
"Two airfare hikes in the past few weeks is the strongest signal I have seen that the bottom is either here or near," Farecompare.com Chief Executive Rick Seaney said.
But even with the increases, airfares are still lower than they have been in years, according to national auto club AAA, which also runs one of the largest travel agencies.
In its Fourth of July travel forecast, AAA said airfares were down an average of 16% compared with last year.
With relatively lower fares and pent-up demand from people who have not taken a vacation trip by air recently, leisure bookings were up nearly 5% for the holiday travel period, AAA said.
Premium tickets still plunging
With more companies requiring employees to fly coach, first- and business-class airfares are still sliding and continue to offer the best value -- if travelers and employers can afford them.
A first-class round-trip ticket on a United Airlines flight from Los Angeles International Airport to Denver was slashed to $548 from $1,918 this week, representing a 71% discount, according to online travel service Bestfares.com.
The ticket, which includes taxes and fees, must be purchased 21 days in advance and requires a Saturday stay-over.
Premium round-trip fares for flights from LAX to New York were down to $700 from $1,600 and first-class tickets to Las Vegas fell to $398 from $598.
"With business travel down this year -- and it is really down during the summer -- why not fill up the front cabin with discount airfares?" said Tom Parsons, chief executive of Bestfares.com.
"It's better to sell the front cabin seats, even at a discount price, than give them to your frequent fliers at a lower upgrade rate."
Moving day for Northwest
All Northwest Airlines flights at LAX will depart from Terminals 5 and 6 starting Tuesday as the carrier consolidates operations with Delta Air Lines. Northwest-operated flights currently depart from Terminal 2.
For at least a week, Northwest passengers trying to check in at Terminal 2 will be directed to the Delta terminals at the opposite end of the airport, airline officials said.
For the time being, Northwest will still have separate check-in counters at its new terminal.
Delta and Northwest agreed to a merger to create the world's largest airline last fall. Combined, the merged airline is the fourth-busiest at LAX.
Top destinations on Fourth of July
For the first time, the Big Easy is the No. 1 destination for Fourth of July holiday travel, beating out traditional favorite Las Vegas, which finished second, according to hotel bookings on Priceline.com.
San Diego and Disneyland were the only Southern California destinations to make the top 25.
"The big surprise this year is the emergence of New Orleans' downtown convention center area as the No. 1 July Fourth destination," said Brian Ek, travel researcher for Priceline.com. "This could signal the completion of the city's comeback as a tourist mecca following Hurricane Katrina."
Rounding out the top five destinations are Chicago, New York and Seattle.
Delta begins nonstop flights from LAX to Sao Paulo, Brazil, on Tuesday, followed by nonstop service to Sydney, Australia, starting Wednesday. . . . Korean Air Lines posted the best on-time performance last year among all major carriers, according to an annual survey by aircraft makers Boeing Co. and Airbus. Its flights departed on schedule 99.86% of the time. . . . International airline passenger traffic fell 9.3% in May, but the International Air Transport Assn. said the rate of decline appeared to be slowing, signaling that the bottom of the market might have been reached.