Why Are Flights So Expensive Right Now?

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Ready for a getaway? If you're planning a vacation, you might have noticed airline tickets are more expensive than they were a year or two ago. Airfare prices have risen in response to increasing demand, fuel costs and staffing shortages, among other concerns, but there are ways to land some cheap flights if you plan in advance.

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Increasing Travel Demand

Although pandemic concerns remain, consumers are ready to travel again, and airline security checkpoint data confirms it. After a significant drop in ​2020​ and lower numbers in ​2021​, airport traffic is within ​90 percent​ of pre-pandemic levels. That has forced airlines to rapidly accelerate traffic and routes for the ​2019​ summer travel season.

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In addition to leisure travel, airlines are also dealing with business bookings. Conferences and trade shows are ramping up again as people are eager to meet in person for the first time in ​two years​. This could keep the travel industry hopping into the fall, long after the vacation travel season ends.

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Rising Fuel Costs

If you've adjusted your driving in response to higher prices at the pump, you aren't alone. The airline industry is suffering from those higher gas prices, as well. Jet fuel prices are up ​114 percent​ compared to a year ago, leading airlines to add fuel surcharges to their ticket prices.

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Despite those surcharges, though, airlines are seeing increasing demand for tickets. Delta, which needs to make up ​$15​ to ​$20​ on each ​$200​ ticket due to fuel costs alone, has seen ticket sales surge upward with each month. Still, the company reports that sales are currently only at ​60 percent​ of pre-pandemic levels. Higher fares are a better option than cutting flights when demand is high.

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Airfare prices have risen in response to increasing demand, fuel costs and staffing shortages, among other concerns, but there are ways to land some cheap flights if you plan in advance.

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Ongoing Staffing Shortages

The Big Quit has hit many industries, and air travel is no exception. Airlines are dealing with staffing shortages as they struggle to return to pre-pandemic activity levels. Both American Airlines and United furloughed tens of thousands of workers during the pandemic, and some of those employees simply didn't return.

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As you're booking flights, it's possible that you'll see fewer options in addition to higher pricing, as airlines struggle to boost employee levels. In March ​2022​ alone, U.S. airlines added ​6,546​ jobs, bringing the industry to ​745,836​ workers. In March ​2019​, the industry had ​733,884​ jobs, so airlines are now operating above pre-pandemic levels.

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Data-Informed Price-Setting Technologies

Those ticket price increases you're seeing are no accident. Like many industries, airlines use data science to set prices. Airline price-setting algorithms use historical data to set pricing including expected demand, likelihood of cancellations and the length of the trip.

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There are ways to make these algorithms work for you. You can find bargains by taking advantage of sales or monitoring prices over time and taking action when prices lower. You'll probably also find that the best way to get low fares is to plan your trips for the off season or to be flexible on the time of day and day of week you fly.

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COVID’s Lingering Uncertainties

Although mask mandates have lifted and vaccinations are readily available, airlines are still dealing with the possibility of outbreaks. Flight prices remain high in part because airlines were heavily impacted by cancelled flights during the worst of the pandemic. Since cases are still spiking in certain areas of the country, airlines may be hesitant to offer low-cost flights in case travel plans have to suddenly change.

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For travelers, this uncertainty could make that roundtrip ticket purchase risky. This is especially true of international flights, since international travel is already typically pricey. Travel insurance could be a way to cushion yourself against that risk, as long as you make sure your travel insurance policy covers COVID-related cancellations.

With high ticket prices and crowded flights, this might not be the best year to plan a vacation. If you can plan your trip around demand surges, you might be able to not only get cheaper tickets, but also hit the airport at a time when lines aren't long and flights aren't packed.

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