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As families across America get ready for Thanksgiving, they may find it easier to drive to grandma's house now that gas prices have fallen in many parts of the country. But holiday travel won't exactly be a Black Friday bargain. Airplane ticket fares are actually up this season — even as airlines save about $31 million a week on lower jet fuel prices.
Flying non-stop this Thanksgiving will cost American travelers about 10 to 15 percent more than last year — even though jet fuel prices have dropped 17 percent in the same time span.
The fares tell the story, so NBC News asked FareCompare, a travel planning website, to run a few price checks: A commercial flight from Detroit to San Francisco today averages $591 — a jump from $508 last year. Seattle to Dallas today averages $403 — compared to $347 last year.
The spike in ticket prices is all about supply-and-demand. After a decade of airline mergers and industry tumult, there are simply fewer airlines and fewer seats on flights for the two million Americans who fly every day, according FareCompare CEO Rick Seaney.
But the airlines know customers will only pay so much, Seaney said. "Airlines have to fill every empty middle seat, so if they put the prices too high, people just won't buy seats and they really can't fly those planes empty."
The major airlines insist they're using their record profits to improve the customer experience — upgrading airport terminals, installing Wi-Fi systems and purchasing new airplanes, industry analysts say.
"When the price of coffee beans falls, you don't expect your latte to cost you less," said Jean Medina, a spokeswoman for Airlines for America, a trade group of the big carriers. "You expect Starbucks to reinvest in its product and that's what the airlines are doing."
Savings from lower fuel prices comes out to about $2.15 for each flight a passenger takes — and those savings go straight into the airlines' pockets.
— Daniel Arkin contributed to this report.