Tickets From Here to There for Less

By Elaine Glusac

| Photographs By warrengoldswain/warrengoldswain

Summer is perennially peak season in air travel, and this summer appears to be an especially good time to fly as airline competition, the increased deployment of fuel-efficient planes, and expanding route maps offer travelers more choices and often bargain fares.

The number of fliers is expected to rise 3.7 percent this summer over last, with a record 246.1 million passengers traveling domestically on U.S. airlines between June 1 and Aug. 31, according to Airlines for America, the industry trade organization representing most of the major U.S. airlines.

Added capacity has helped keep prices down, even as demand is rising, according to research by the airfare prediction app Hopper. It estimates that prices will be down this summer 6.7 percent compared with last summer, forecasting average domestic fares to drop to $211 in July and August from $240 in June.

“Every summer, there’s a big spike in the number of people traveling, but the last few years we’ve had low oil prices which has caused airlines to increase capacity,” said Patrick Surry, the chief data scientist for Hopper. “That could be coming to an end with rising oil prices. This summer may be your last chance to get a cheap deal, particularly if you’re flying internationally.”

Since the airline industry was deregulated in 1979, increased competition and consolidation have caused fares — when adjusted for inflation — to drop more than 40 percent, according to the Eno Center for Transportation, a Washington think tank devoted to transportation issues.

“Airlines became very efficient at trying to get as many paying passengers onboard per flight,” said Paul Lewis, the vice president of policy and finance at the Eno Center. “Seats got closer, load factors got higher and while we don’t tend to like cramming into an airplane, that’s how we’re able to enjoy relatively low fares.”

Technology advancements and the surge in low-cost carriers, particularly on international routes, have made flying more convenient, if not necessarily more comfortable.

More-efficient aircraft

Some of the new class of aircraft, particularly the wide-bodied carbon composite planes, which include the Boeing 787 Dreamliner and Airbus A350, are more comfortable, and not just in business class. The plastic parts mean airlines can pressurize the cabin at 6,000 feet versus 8,000 feet and commensurately increase the humidity in the aircraft.

Lighter aircraft with more fuel-efficient engines allow airlines to fly longer and farther. The Australian airline Qantas recently launched a Dreamliner on a 17-hour route between Perth, in Western Australia, and London. In October, Singapore Airlines plans to begin flying the industry’s longest route when it relaunches Newark-to-Singapore nonstop flights (a route it ceased flying in 2013) aboard the Airbus A350-900. The flight will take 18 hours, 45 minutes.

“Then they were flying quad engines, and now they can do it with two,” said Seth Kaplan, the managing partner at Airline Weekly, an industry publication. “Being able to cover the same distance with half as many engines with far less fuel can make it viable again.”

U.S. travelers are more likely to encounter the more common, next-generation, narrow-body planes that have more fuel-efficient engines and aerodynamic designs that allow them to fly farther and more cost effectively — even though they are mostly made of traditional materials like aluminum. Boeing’s 737 Max increased the range for a similar size plane by 19 percent, to 3,850 nautical miles. Airbus says its A320neo models save as much as 20 percent on fuel while cutting emissions and engine noise.

With Airbus’ newer single-aisle planes, Hawaiian Airlines has expanded its Hawaii-bound service from its traditional West Coast hubs like Los Angeles to include San Diego and Long Beach, Calif. Norwegian Air Shuttle is newly flying Boeing’s 737 Max between New York Stewart International Airport — in Orange County, about 60 miles north of Manhattan — to Dublin with one-way fares starting as low as $164.

New international routes

The three major Persian Gulf carriers — Emirates, Etihad Airways and Qatar Airways — have aggressively marketed to Americans, offering relatively affordable economy fares to Asia, in particular by positioning their base airports in Dubai, Abu Dhabi and Doha as long-distance hubs. Last year, I could not pass up a $950 flight to Sri Lanka on Qatar that required a change of planes in Abu Dhabi when the next cheapest fare, also a one-stop, was $400 more.

U.S. airlines have cried foul, noting that Gulf governments with deep pockets are subsidizing these money-losing routes at the expense of true competition. In May, the United Arab Emirates, which owns Emirates and Etihad, agreed to more financial transparency; Qatar agreed to the same earlier this year.

“American carriers believe they’re not playing fair, and over the next 12 months we’ll have a better sense of how this will play out,” said Lewis.

Gulf carriers are not the only foreign airlines trying to steal traffic from popular European hubs like Amsterdam, London and Frankfurt. Turkish Airlines has positioned Istanbul as a convenient stopover for flights to Eastern Europe. It even offers free Istanbul city tours for those with long layovers.

Legacy carriers in the United States — American, United and Delta — have expanded their networks by teaming with foreign airlines to sync connecting flights. They are also increasing seasonal nonstop service, such as American’s Chicago-to-Venice flights introduced this summer, when demand warrants.

“It’s a win-win for all parties,” said Rob Britton, the founder of the aviation consultancy AirLearn. “It’s allowed the airlines to build networks in all directions. And it’s good for the consumer because they’re given enormous choice.”

Bargain flights abroad

Budget-minded travelers have embraced low-cost flights for their rock-bottom fares, so much so that legacy carriers in the United States have created frill-free fares to compete with them. Hopper found that Spirit Airlines, Frontier Airlines and Allegiant Air expanded their domestic capacity by 15 percent in the past year.

International low-cost carriers — including WOW Air, Germanwings, Cebu Pacific and others — expanded their service to U.S. markets by 52 percent in the past year, according to Hopper.

This year, Primera Air, a Latvia-based carrier that operates low-cost flights within Europe, added routes to Boston, Newark and Washington. Summer flights from Newark to Stansted Airport in London start at $169 one-way.

Whether low-cost carriers can make long-haul travel profitable, something that has rarely been done, remains to be seen. Norwegian Air, for example, reported substantial losses in 2017. Nevertheless, the very presence of bargain fares affects pricing across the spectrum of carriers.

“Even if you don’t fly Norwegian, other airlines have to compete with them, and it puts downward pressure on airfares,” said Kaplan. “So, it’s an interesting time for air travel.”


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This article originally appeared in The New York Times. It was written by Elaine Glusac from The New York Times and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network. Please direct all licensing questions to legal@newscred.com.

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