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Major U.S. airlines impose peak travel fees on most summer flights

Passengers will have to pay surcharges of $10 to $30 per seat on 74 of the 98 days from Memorial Day to Labor Day. Low-cost carriers such as Southwest and Alaska don't plan to follow suit.

May 24, 2010|By Hugo Martín, Los Angeles Times

Cashing in on an expected increase in summer air travel, the nation's largest airlines are charging passengers a "peak travel surcharge" of up to $30 per seat for flights most days this summer.

The country's major airlines have imposed a "peak travel surcharge" on 74 of the 98 days from Memorial Day to Labor Day, according to an analysis by farecompare.com, a website that keeps track of fees and fares.

The airlines have also added peak travel fees for flights on several days around the Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year's holidays.

In contrast, in 2009 the airlines added peak travel fees on only about 15 days toward the end of the year, including the day after Thanksgiving.

But not all airlines have plans to tack on the peak travel fee. Low-cost airlines such as Southwest and Alaska airlines say they don't expect to follow the lead of the bigger air carriers.

"That's not a trend that Southwest Airlines sees as a benefit for the company," said Southwest spokeswoman Whitney Eichinger.

Airline fees are nothing new. As demand began to slump during the economic tumult of the last two years or so, the nation's struggling air carriers have added charges for checked bags, carry-on bags, snacks, drinks and pillows.

But this summer, the five biggest airlines — American, Continental, Delta, United and US Airways — are no longer limiting the peak travel fee to only a few days around the holidays.

A passenger on a major airline who checks one bag and travels on a peak travel day can expect to pay up to $110 round trip in fees in addition to the fare.

By adding the fees, critics say, airlines can more easily increase fares as demand begins to rise.

"What we are seeing, basically, is a change in the way the airlines raise their fares," said Rick Seaney, founder of farecompare.com.

Airline officials defended the surcharges, saying that more planes will fly at near capacity this summer, and noting that the new charges will be clearly spelled out to passengers before they buy a ticket.

"It is simply a different way of filing a fare change that is less cumbersome administratively to file in situations where it is aimed at specific dates," said American Airlines spokesman Tim Smith.

The airlines have added highest fees — $30 per ticket — for flights on most Sundays this summer and the lower fees — $10 per ticket — for flights Monday and Tuesday.

The only Sunday from Memorial Day to Labor Day when the major airlines won't charge a peak travel surcharge is July 4, a slow travel day because most people are celebrating the holiday.

Airline travel demand has declined over the last two summers but is expected to rise about 1% this summer, an increase of about 202 million passengers compared with last summer, according to a recent forecast by the Air Transport Assn. of America, the trade group that represents most U.S. airlines.

Despite signs of an improving economy, summer travelers say they will continue to be frugal with their vacation money.

Gloria Gwynne of Los Angeles is considering flying to Orlando this summer "if I can go for a cheap price," she said as she left an office of the Auto Club of Southern California after picking up roadmaps for her daughter's trip to Spain.

If the airfares are too high, Gwynne said, she may instead plan a road trip to Nevada.

Meanwhile, Kathy Laity of Los Angeles said she is planning to take her family on a vacation to Aspen this summer. If the airfares are high, she said her family will cut back on other costs.

"Maybe we won't eat out as often," she said. "Maybe we'll just pack a lunch."

hugo.martin@latimes.com

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