Air Travel Is Getting Cheaper Because No One Is Flying

Prices are coming down as demand weakens, so if you were thinking of taking a flight — now might be a good time to start shopping for tickets.Southwest Airlines and AirTran have both announced fare cuts and the LA Times says that traffic is down 31% at LA/Ontario International Airport as ExpressJet, United Airlines, Delta Airlines, Southwest Airlines and JetBlue Airways have eliminated or slashed service. With that in mind, here are three shopping tools we like…


Farecast.com:
Track a specific flight over time, see graphs that help you choose the least expensive dates to fly, or just see where it’s cheapest to go right now. Sort of fun even if you’re not planning a trip.

Seatguru
— Identifies the best seats on various aircraft. Never smell that awful bathroom smell again.

Airfarewatchdog — Finds cheap fares with a cheery attitude.

(Photo:jdnx)

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  1. Caveat says:

    I imagine many of the potential customers that would be flying out of Ontario California are losing their homes in Corona, Riverside and San Bernardino. Where are they going to get the money to fly?

    • urabl says:

      @Caveat: Not as familiar with the area, but it strikes me as similar to cities with multiple daily papers seeing the smaller ones close lately.

      (But either way, I agree that pointing out loss of demand at Ontario’s airport as a sign of a bigger problem is maybe kinda silly.)

  2. cromartie says:

    And no one is flying because it’s a lousy experience that’s expensive anyway. Couldn’t be happening to a nicer industry.

    • trekwars2000 says:

      @cromartie: Yeah, it is outrageously priced when you can fly across country for less than $300. Come on.

      • cromartie says:

        @trekwars2000: As a value proposition, flying coach, for many of the reasons listed below, earn a FAIL. Also, I assume you live in a hub city, which a significant number of other Americans don’t, which increases the cost of the flight and includes a layover.

        I’m a frequent flyer who gets upgrades to first class on most flights, and even I hate the whole process and drive whenever possible.

        Outside of Midwest Airlines, which I understand has declined considerably since surviving a takeover bid, JetBlue, and a non-full Southwest flight, the non-First Class domestic experience on any US based airline is inferior to virtually any other first world country, and India. If you allowed Kingfisher Airlines to operate domestically in the US, they would embarass every domestic carrier.

        • dhmosquito says:

          @cromartie: You bet. For personal travels, if one adds the price of a rental car and airport parking, well, things get more expensive reeeeeal quickly. My wife & I are planning a May trip from Virginia to Rapid City, SD. We’re driving. My very reliable car gets 32mpg+ on the highway, we don’t need a rental car when we arrive, and we don’t have to sweat 2 or maybe 3 flights each way from the nearby Richmond or DC airports to RC. Sure, we could fly to Omaha (on Midwest nonstop from DCA) or Denver (nonstop from BWI) and drive to Rapid City, but both of those are 6+hour drives over to RC. Yeah, it’s not as safe, admittedly, but putting up with lousy airline service, TSA hassles, misplaced or lost luggage, potential missed flights, kids screaming or kicking your seat for 2-3 hours, paying outrageous parking fees at the airport, and possibly getting a major “smoked-in” unclean rental car (ugh) all add up to driving, not flying. Oh, yes: the airports where one rents cars typically pour on the local taxes and use fees which just overburden the traveler. Guess it helps that I like to drive, too.

          • David Brodbeck says:

            @dhmosquito: I’d probably never fly if I had unlimited free time. I love to drive and I hate the security theater at the airport. (The actual flying is fine, it’s just everything you have to go through to get on and off the plane that I loathe.)

            The problem is, when I figure in the value of my vacation time, flying ends up being way cheaper than driving.

      • chauncy that billups says:

        @trekwars2000: Flying is great if you’re by yourself. The funny thing is though, as you add members to your family, the cost of flying doubles, while the cost of driving drops by half. At some point, unless you’re flying across country, driving is the better value proposition (even including the added time).

      • TWSS says:

        @trekwars2000: Well, $300 is the advertised price. Add the $50-each-way fuel surcharge, $25 checked bag fee, $20 to reserve by phone, $18 “facility fee”, the crappy $8 sandwich, etc. and you’re talking about a little more than $300.

  3. EBounding says:

    It’s getting cheaper? Compared to when?

    Compared to last year, it looks a lot more expensive especially with all the extra fees. I imagine this is because all the airlines locked in their fuel contracts when oil was $140. :B

    • trekwars2000 says:

      @EBounding: Hedging oil only pays for the option to buy at that price in the future. When you go not buy at the price all you lose if the money that it cost you to buy the hedge. So I hardly think this is an issue

  4. faintandfuzzies says:

    I have no pitty to give to the airlines. After fuel prices drastically went down, they were still raping their customers.

    • ARP says:

      @faintandfuzzies: We’ve seen that everywhere. Grocery stores and other places that are heavily reliant on ground transport haven’t lowered their prices. You’d think that would help off-set the downturn by having fewer sales, but higher margins.

    • faintandfuzzies says:

      @faintandfuzzies: Plus the extra ‘fees’ that just about all airlines added to ‘compensate’ for the high cost of fuel haven’t been removed either!

  5. tc4b says:

    It’s nice to see the market correct itself now and then. It ain’t perfect, but sometimes it kinda works.

    • ARP says:

      @tc4b: It really hasn’t though. They’ve simply moved the fees from the actual fares to al la carte items like checking luggage, drinks, etc. They’ve also continued to dilute frequent flier programs by requiring high booking fees or supplemental fees when you want to travel any significant distance (try to upgrade on a Trans-Atlantic flight using miles). Granted it’s a bit cheaper, but much of that is slight of hand.

  6. LetMeGetTheManager says:

    I use SeatGuru all the time. Another benefit is reserving the exit row seats when they become available twenty-four hours before the flight.

  7. Starfury says:

    If I’m going to the Los Angeles area I’ll just drive. Takes about 7 hours…with having to get to the airport early and any other delays it’s not much longer to get there.

    If they do get cheap enough maybe we’ll plan an actual vacation this year.

    • JayDeEm says:

      @Starfury: Same here. I run between Phoenix & Orange County a few times a year and always drive. The one time I did decide to fly I only saved about an hour. Driving is just much more convenient & comfortable for that particular trip.

      (Still gotta check out the big swap meet thing in Quartzite, I hear it’s pretty cool)

  8. Jubilance22 says:

    It may be cheaper, but so many airlines have cut flights and made it so inconvenient to fly. For example, I’m in Orlando and there used to be at least 1 nonstop flight between Orlando and Charlotte a day. Now there are none and the layovers in Atlanta suck.

    I’m the type of person that loves to book a flight and have a weekend getaway at the last minute, but I don’t want to spend half that weekend in somebody’s airport. If I can’t fly non-stop, I don’t go, and the reduction in non-stop flights is keeping me local.

  9. axiomatic says:

    I don’t fly anymore because I think the airlines have forgotten why they are there. They are there to perform a customer service, but they have forgotten how those customers should be treated when purchasing this service. I live next door to a stewardess and a pilot. The pilot is a nice guy and is easy to get along with. The stewardess is basically the “tattle tail” of the whole street. You can tell that she takes her “holier than thou” airline job attitude and subjects the whole neighborhood to it. The pilot even hates her and they both work for Continental.

    I let my 4 year old pee on her sago palm last night when he couldn’t make it to the bathroom in time.

    I’m a classy guy…

  10. lars2112 says:

    I am finding round trip flights from coast to coast under 200 that are direct or 1 stop. Fares have been going down a lot for me, last year a flight from DC to San Francisco would have cost me over 400, not it is around 190.

    • jamar0303 says:

      @lars2112: On the other hand, Farecast is tossing 4-digit figures (US$) at me for Tokyo-Shanghai flights. I mean, really, it’s shorter than DC-SF, does the international bureaucracy really make it 10x more expensive to fly? I’m taking the ferry (which is priced at the much more reasonable US$200 per person first-class). Price to miles, it’s the best value for redemption, though- flying Shanghai-Nashville costs less but requires more miles to redeem a free flight. WTF?

      • thelastkey says:

        @jamar0303: Because you are looking at wrong website. Why are you looking at an American website for a flight between China and Japan?

        I flew from Shanghai to Seoul just last month for about 270USD because I booked ticket from Chinese agent, not an American website.

        • jamar0303 says:

          @thelastkey: Chinese websites still all say US$500 or so. 50% less but still not that affordable (need to save every penny because the yen is way high right now).

  11. cordeliapotter says:

    Yeah, prices seem sky-high to me. I mean, I did most of my flying pre-9/11, so I still initially compare everything to that time, but still it shouldn’t cost $1000 to fly from DC to Europe nor $400 from DC to Chicago. Hell, it’s currently $200 to Columbus OH from DC…That should be $60 tops.

  12. Saboth says:

    I dunno, have they gotten rid of the ridiculous 1st and/or 2nd checked baggage fees yet? Fuel surcharges gone now that oil is cheap? If not, screw them.

  13. Gokuhouse says:

    I have vowed to never fly again…Not with the invasive screening they have implemented. People can only take so many naked screenings before getting too annoyed…..

  14. corinthos says:

    @cromartie: I drove from Indiana to Salt lake just because I hate the airlines. I always tend to get some prick who gives me a hard time when I’m leaving from my destination. I always fly out of Louisville and leaving always goes off without a hitch. Its the other airports that i hate.

  15. darkrose says:

    I regularly fly from Jacksonville to Philadelphia and back. I have noticed that the planes are getting smaller and less people are flying. The past couple of trips I have had whole rows to myself.

    USAir has also stopped flying the 737s and Airbuses out of Jax, at least the times I’ve flown. Instead they use some Bombardier regional jet that seats 2 abreast (4 in a row, 2 on each side). It looks like a 737, just it’s smaller.

    Looking at fares for my next trip, I’m going for $59 each way. Not too shabby (we have seen as low as $49 each way in the past).

  16. jamesdenver says:

    I’ve never been asked to be naked at a TSA checkpoint. Some people love spouting off “I don’t fly” – which is great if you have never leave your city, or have unlimited free time to drive there and don’t every leave the country.

    • darkrose says:

      @jamesdenver: Neither have I. I’ve been “selected for additional screening” once and the other time I was asked to take off a thick sweatshirt I was wearing or submit to a pat-down. Since I wasn’t wearing a shirt under my sweatshirt, I submitted to the pat-down. I didn’t mind.

      I find that most of the TSA staff are cheerful and generally make a rather unpleasant procedure as decent as they can. I’m sure there are bad seeds but I’ve never run across any.

    • lars2112 says:

      @jamesdenver: Agree, plus flying is not a right, if you don’t like the airline find another. If you really think that TSA is going to violate your rights have fun driving 3,000 miles then.

      • TheSpatulaOfLove says:

        @lars2112:

        The TSA does violate my rights, and I do drive 3000 miles. And look! They’ve lost a once very heavy traveler and all that revenue.

        Supply and demand…

    • Saboth says:

      @jamesdenver:

      I believe the people referring to naked screenings are referring to the new x-ray equipment that scans everyone down past their bare essentials. You don’t submit to it, you just walk through and are scanned.

    • lihtox says:

      @jamesdenver: I’m personally glad that other people are boycotting the airlines; if I could I would, but the drive from Texas to Pennsylvania to see my folks is prohibitive. Geez I wish we had better (faster, more frequent) rail service.

      • jamar0303 says:

        @lihtox: So do I. The US isn’t Japan, but it shouldn’t be too hard to run high-speed trunk lines cross-country. Plus that makes more jobs.

  17. Anonymous says:

    “no one is flying because it’s a lousy experience that’s expensive”

    Umm, you could at least *try* to keep a sense of perspective here. It is, after all, nearly incredible that you can climb into a seat in a machine that transports you thousands of miles in a single day. Yes, it’s often the case that you’re inconvenienced in one way or another at various points in the process, but it takes an almost surreal sense of entitlement to be pissy about it if you’re flying cross-country for less than the price of a meal for two at a fancy restaurant…

    –Michael O’Donnell

    • lihtox says:

      Can I just say how annoying it is for there to be an “Ontario” airport in California? My wife accidentally bought a ticket there instead of Ottawa once; fortunately she realized the error quickly and the airline changed it without fuss. Still, very annoying.

      OK, that’s my gripe.

  18. MinervaAutolycus says:

    This weekend we flew out of Ontario International, the airport listed in the article, to Las Vegas. I hadn’t flown from there (or anywhere) in about 4 years and I was shocked at how unbusy it was. We flew Southwest, which has a major presence there. Half the stores in the terminal were either not open on Friday afternoon or permanently closed. The plane, though, was packed. Las Vegas was still pretty busy, but nothing like it used to be. That Friday night, the cab driver told us it was like a regular Tuesday night. Picked up pretty good by Saturday. And even getting the cheapest fare available, it was about $400 round trip for hubby and me.

  19. Jevia says:

    I read where US Airways is having a sale on tickets from Philly and LaGuardia to various European cities for $300, if you book for flight before May 20, 2009, leave Su-Th and return M-Th with Saturday overnight stay.

    I wish I could afford to take time off to go right now, sounds like a nice deal. I’m just hopeful that the prices won’t go up too much when I do plan to take my vacation, much later in the year.

  20. vastrightwing says:

    The airline industry and the music industry share a common problem: they think that they are immune to giving the customer what they want. As an example, I want to fly to Tampa for the weekend, but if I make a reservation too late, the price is too high. If I make the reservation too early, I might not be able to go and I have to pay even if I don’t travel. The risk/reward is too great. Shopping for a seat takes a long time. Due to the pricing scheme, it takes hours to properly buy a ticket online because once you buy the ticket, you’re stuck. If you want to change the ticket, you pay almost the full fare again. The risk/reward is too high. Once you book your ticket, there’s a chance you may not get a seat because the airlines overbook the flight. If you make it to the airport, you may miss your flight due to rules about being checked in 30 mins before your flight and you can’t predict how long the wait will be. Lest I forget the possibility of a canceled flight? Add to this when you have a connection to make: you suffer again not knowing if you’re going to make the connection. Getting through security can consume enough time to miss your flight or make your experience miserable (at best). It can cost you lots of money if you don’t read the rules about what you can bring and not bring in your carry on. Once you make it on the plane, you may not be able to stow your luggage in the overhead bins, because the plane is stuffed full and everyone is bringing their carry-ons because you get penalized for checking anything in by the fees and lost luggage. Once in your seat, you get the treatment of a Gitmo prisoner, because face, it once you’re in your seat, you are essentially a prisoner of the airline. You must obey them and be nice, because anything could be construed as a terrorist act. If you’re still with me, the next experience are the babies flying 10 feet away from you crying and fussing and bumping your seat, making it impossible for you to relax and wind down/sleep. Further, if you haven’t eaten for a few hours, then you’re still not going to get anything because the airlines no longer include a meal with your flight. I’ll spare you the rest of the story because, frankly it doesn’t improve from here. In summary, it’s the total experience; the hassle, the price, the time, the anxiety, the anger, the hunger, the wait, the crowds, the idiocy, the policies; forget it! I’m not going to Tampa!

  21. nucwin83 says:

    Meanwhile a roundtrip ticket from GSP to LGA is almost $1100. I know it’s non-stop but come on!

  22. 12-Inch Idongivafuck Sandwich says:

    The last few plane flights I’ve been on (been on 10 segments in the last 8 days), about half have been oversold. But thats what is going to work for the airlines right now.

    They are cutting down on flights to cut costs, so the 250 people that used to fly on a 400 person plane at noon and the 250 people who used to fly on a 400 person plane at 1, now have to fly on a flight that only holds 400 at 12:30. Some will get tickets on the flight (and show up, therefore oversold), others will fly at different times or not at all. It’s going to stay like that until a balance can be made between capacity and cost.

    If you know what is happening at the airport, getting through is a breeze. Get there on time, know what you need to do at security, bring a pair of headphones for the plane (the noise reduction ones are awesome), and buy your own drink at a newsstand after going through security, and be courteous (which shouldn’t be too hard). At that point your biggest issue is dealing with people who don’t know what they are doing (which do get super frustrating).

  23. SexCpotatoes says:

    I’d imagine that the deadly plane crashes don’t help matters much, and who has the money to fly? Like 30%+ of the country is unemployed, with more about to lose their jobs…

    On the plane crash front, yay for landing a plane safely on the Hudson, but then shortly thereafter you get a plane crash in Argentina? or somewhere where everyone died, now there’s 5 or 9 deaths from a plane that just broke into three pieces in some other country in the news today… so yeah, not helping anyone’s flying anxiety with those occurrences…

    • David Brodbeck says:

      @SexCpotatoes: I don’t think you can compare air safety in third-world countries to air safety in the U.S. Before that commuter flight crashed earlier this month, we hadn’t had an airline fatality in over two years.

  24. Shadowman615 says:

    Well I did just buy roundtrip from DCA to Alaska for about $600 a ticket this coming June (on Delta/NWA). I’m not sure if that’s good or not, since it’s the only time I’ve bought those. But those were close to the cheapest available. Prices for similar flights when I looked about 5 or 6 months ago were more in the $800+ range.

  25. testing123a says:

    A “surreal sense of entitlement” – yup, that sounds about right. It’s just plain embarrassing to see passengers throw tantrums in the terminals and abuse the people at the gate or behind the ticket desk. If anybody deserves abuse it’s the super-geniuses at DHS.

  26. vladthepaler says:

    Since the official excuse for raising their prices was fuel costs, and fuel costs have dropped considerably, I would expect prices to fall back to their pre-high-fuel-costs levels, unless of course the company is just greedily keeping all the extra money.

    • David Brodbeck says:

      @vladthepaler: They all thought fuel prices would keep going up, so most of them locked in long-term contracts. So even though the fuel prices have now dropped, airlines’ fuel costs mostly haven’t.

      The only airline that seems to consistently get fuel hedging right is Southwest.

  27. FuryOfFirestorm says:

    (Mr. Burns voice) EXCELLENT! I like to put my feet up!

  28. qxrt says:

    I’ve gone on about 12 flights in the past couple of months due to interviews, and on 10 out of the 12 flights, the seats next to me have been empty (sometimes I even get the entire row to myself!). I guess it’s bad for the airlines, but flying on an airplane sure is a hell of a lot more comfortable when you can stretch yourself out over several seats!

  29. kimdog says:

    I just bought tickets from NYC to London for $440…. and there were 5 airlines with prices under $500. It’s an awesome time to travel if you can afford it. The dollar has gained a lot of ground against the pound and euro.

  30. Dillenger69 says:

    I refuse to fly just out of general principle. I don’t appreciate being treated like a criminal until I prove I’m not. My name is “too common” so anyone with it is on a government list and has to show their papers. The screeners are assholes (I would be too, who can blame them). I don’t like trying to get shoes on and of of two young kids while getting dirty looks from single travelers. The Tiger Repellent “freedom baggie” is a scare-mongering joke. The whole endeavor reeks of passing between east and west Berlin at the height of the cold war (or so my wife tells me since she was there at the time).

    They really shouldn’t be surprised when the people they treat like garbage turn away from their service.

  31. teknowaffle says:

    It is true, and same with hotels. Last month My girlfriend and I got 8 nights in Cancun including airfare for 447 dollars. And not just a crappy hotel, the Hyatt Regency.

    My friend wants to go to reno/tahoe this weekend to goof off, gamble, and ski, and I found a 4 star hotel for a total cost of 30 each a night.

    They must be hurting.

  32. carlogesualdo says:

    I flew on Southwest to Chicago last week. On four flight segments, not one of them was anywhere near full. In fact, one flight segment only had 30 people! The extra space was nice, but I’d rather keep Southwest in business.

  33. cromartie says:

    @undefined: All of which makes me wish we had a “magnetic” train system outside of the Northeast as a viable alternative for regional travel.

    One thing the President said during the campaign was spot on. Why should we be flying from Chicago to Detroit when a high speed rail system could get us there in the equivalent amount of time and use less fuel?

    • jamar0303 says:

      @cromartie: California’s getting theirs soon enough (yes, they’re nearly smothered by debt, but come on, what’s the worst the federal government can do, give them back to Mexico and say “here, we don’t want them anymore”?). It’s just a matter of getting the rest of the US on board. LA-Chicago in a night would be nice. I’d prefer that to suffering the TSA. Plus fuel prices are bound to come back up- start saving now by running electric trains.