You don't need me to tell you that the summer of 2008 was a tough time for air travel. Higher airfares, crowded planes and let's not forget delayed and canceled flights. It was also the summer that air travel in America became the Land of the Fee: checked bag fees, talk-to-a human-being fee, eat-airline-food fee... How long before pay toilets are installed?
And just when you thought it couldn't get worse, fasten your seatbelts—it's going to be a very bumpy flight. That is, if you can find one. (Or worse, afford one.)
Within the next few weeks, airlines in the U.S. will be cutting their domestic capacity by up to 16 percent across the board. Southwest Airlines will cut 200 flights from its winter schedule this fall. In September, Jet Blue ended on the following routes: Boston to San Francisco, Boston to San José, New York to Ontario, Washington to Burbank, Washington to Las Vegas, and Washington to San Diego.
This means that major airlines will be parking (i.e., taking out of service) planes. Continental will park nearly 70 planes, American will retire more than 80 and United could park more than 120. Midwest is cutting one third of its fleet, and Frontier—currently operating under bankruptcy—is removing 17 percent of its capacity.
The U.S. has 524 airports offering commercial air service, and most city officials at these airports are worried about losing service. They should be. Airports in Cincinnati, Cleveland, Houston, Honolulu, San Juan, Las Vegas, Oakland and Columbus are just a few that are expected to lose more than 10 percent of their scheduled service. And in some states, the cuts will be radical: In Michigan, Toledo, Lansing, Flint and Grand Rapids are seeing double-digit reductions in seat capacity and fares are up 15 to 30 percent over the same time period.
The cuts in service are indeed dramatic. In the last 12 months, flight departures in Orlando have dropped nearly 18 percent. There's been a 25 percent drop in Hawaii, and a 16 percent drop in Las Vegas. Smaller markets are getting hit even harder—Milwaukee lost nearly 25 percent of its departures; Kansas City more than 26 percent. Even the Bahamas is getting hit—Nassau is losing more than 28 percent of its departing flights.
Other airports hard hit include Fort Lauderdale and San Juan. Even though, like Las Vegas and Orlando, these are very popular destinations, airlines are cutting back service there because these flights primarily carry low-margin leisure travelers. American Airlines, for example, expects to cut daily flights out of San Juan from 93 to 51 this month. That's huge. This will also impact the cruise industry, since it will be harder for passengers to reach the island to board their ships.
What does this mean to you? The law of supply and demand is taking over. That is, airfares are becoming rapidly more expensive.
For example, I just priced a coach seat on American Airlines over Thanksgiving on a flight between Los Angeles and New York. Last year, the same ticket cost $484, an increase over the year before when it was about $375. This year—a whopping $789! I checked with the folks at farecompare.com, a great Web site that analyzes airfares (and changes in those fares). Their report isn't exactly upbeat. In the last year, Thanksgiving airfares are up about 31 percent; Christmas airfares are up 30 percent. They're even higher in markets like Los Angeles and New York.
What can you do as fares climb and capacity shrinks? And what happens if you book a flight now that disappears in two months? Keep in mind that in those situations, the airlines' only responsibility is to offer you a full refund without penalty or reschedule you on another of their flights. But believe me—their "rescheduled" flight itinerary may include an unorthodox, and long, itinerary. The reality is, fall airline schedules are wreaking havoc with our own travel schedules and wallets, and we need to adjust in anticipation of even more problems.
The best advice is basic common sense: Book as early as possible. And since your odds of getting bumped off a flight have increased, get to the airport early if you really need to get somewhere.
Try to book the very first flight of the morning. Reason being: There's a good chance that the aircraft assigned to your flight—as well as your flight crew—overnighted at your airport the night before. You therefore stand a better chance that the flight won't be delayed, or get stuck waiting for a crew.
Buy travel packages whenever possible. Tour operators often block space on flights that may not show as available on other Web sites or through the airlines themselves.
Though it sounds counterintuitive, avoid non-stop flights. They will be much more expensive, because the airlines will price them for business travelers who must fly somewhere quickly. Instead, book connecting flights that go through major hubs. Give yourself at least a two-hour connect time. If things go wrong, you have enough time to make arrangements, and you're already in a busy hub that offers a lot of options.
Track your flights using flightstats.com—not just immediately before you take your flight, but before you even make your reservation. Flightstats.com offers a great historical picture of the yearly on-time performance of every scheduled flight. Obviously, a flight that is late 96 percent of the time—and I’m sad to report there are a lot of them—is one you don't want to book in the first place.
And finally, for a nice change of pace: For flights less than 400 miles, consider Amtrak or the bus. Both have become economically viable alternatives to flying. Just recently, I was traveling in upstate New York and needed to get back to Manhattan. I had a choice: a US Airways flight from Albany to La Guardia on an overpriced commuter flight with my knees shoved into my neck, into an airport that almost guaranteed to delay my flight ($460). Or I could go to the Rensaleer station in Albany, hop on Amtrak's Adirondack, a train that takes just over two hours on a beautiful route that hugs the Hudson River to New York's Penn Station. I had a seat bigger than most airlines' first-class seats, I could plug my laptop in and recharge my cell phone. And my fare was just $44. And as it turned out, while the US Airways flight was listed at just over an hour, my train actually beat it to New York by 22 minutes.
(That said, many tickets on Amtrak’s often rickety service between Boston and Washington, D.C. remain overpriced and do not represent the best price-quality ratio.)
Thanksgiving will once again be the most heavily traveled holiday of the year, and planes will be even more crowded—if that's at all possible. Fares are soaring. But the week after Thanksgiving has always been called the "dead" week in the travel industry, and this year will be no different. Fares drop significantly the Tuesday after Thanksgiving. If you can at all delay Thanksgiving by a week, you'll save hundreds of dollars.
Finally, how about some good news? With fewer flights in the air, hotels have more rooms to fill. According to farecast.com, hotel rates in Hawaii and Florida are down by 20 percent from last year. This was the first time since 2003 that occupancy rates have dropped, and similar drops are now happening in Palm Springs and Phoenix.