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As if canceled flights and lost luggage weren’t complicated enough, potential Southwest Airlines passengers faced another obstacle to their vacation travel this week: high fares on other carriers.
Southwest announced on Thursday it would resume normal operations this weekend, having canceled around 13,000 flights last week. Many who have tried to find flights on different airlines have encountered sky-high prices – in some cases tripling or quadrupling the fare for the same route in recent months.
Take, for example, a one-way trip from Chicago to Denver, two of the cities most affected by Southwest operational errors. Those googling a Thursday afternoon ticket would have found the best price at Delta Air Lines: $599. A week ago, the price for the same flight was $139.
But even routes unaffected by the storm, such as a flight from Los Angeles to San Francisco, started at $415 on United, more than four times as expensive as three days ago.
The trend was strong enough to raise questions even for those not despised by Southwest. Are airlines taking advantage of weary travellers?
Before you start circling the term “price gouging,” however, consider what some pundits told NPR this week.
Yes, the prices are very high. But also demand
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“This type of last-minute booking price spike is actually pretty normal,” said Sally French, senior travel writer for NerdWallet.
“Unlike other forms of travel where you might find a last-minute hotel room or cruise cabin that the company tries to fill, airfares rarely offer last-minute deals.”
Kyle Potter, editor of Thrifty Traveler, said last-minute fares are always more expensive, in part because, at this end of the booking game, the supply of free seats is incredibly low.
“Planes are regularly 90-95% full, even 100% full on a normal day these days. And current demand is about as high as it gets. [We’re] approaching the New Year, and the storm added to that,” he told NPR.
Not to mention Southwest’s relative size: the airline is one of the largest carriers in the country. It means hundreds of thousands of South West customers have been suddenly stranded this week, all simultaneously searching for rate sites as they meander through rebooking lines, texting their families who have been at home. house doing the same.
“I really think part of what we’re seeing play out here is less about the price itself and more about the record awareness of these price patterns,” Potter said. “Hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of Americans are suddenly scrambling to find a last-minute ticket on another carrier. Many more are just watching out of curiosity.”
Laura Lindsay, global travel trends expert for Skyscanner, agrees the sudden change in inventory as travelers take seats has an impact.
“Airlines use complicated algorithms to set their prices […] The one factor that trumps all of these and is the ultimate determinant of the price paid: demand,” she said.
“Flight prices are all based on supply and demand, and when demand is high, so are airfares.”
What you see on this search tool may not be an economy class seat
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Potter said there’s also an “alphabet soup” of fare class offerings, each with their own rules, restrictions and, yes, prices.
“Airlines routinely remove certain fares from sale in the last few days before a flight – they don’t want to unload their cheapest fare classes at the last minute and may need to keep some seats open for crew, upgrades , flight changes, etc.” Potter told me.
Potter said a good practice is to check your eye-popping fare on the airline’s website. Sometimes clicking on it may reveal that it is a business or first class ticket.
You should also check the options again later: sometimes an airline will add a cheaper economy seat when they finalize crew schedules or flight changes.
Airlines have said they will limit fare increases through the weekend, but details are hazy
As Southwest’s wave of cancellations drags on, airlines including American, Alaska, Delta and United have all said they will impose nationwide rate caps for the next few days.
NPR has asked the airlines for details, including a list of affected cities and caps for caps. None have specified their policy. Lack of price transparency is standard operating procedure for the highly competitive aviation industry.
“Price caps are built into Alaska’s daily pricing model,” the West Coast-based airline said. “In addition, we have further reduced fares in select cities and are doing everything we can to get customers, whose travel has been impacted by winter storms, back to their destinations.”
United Airlines said it capped fares through Saturday with a focus on “domestic and Latin American markets served by the Southwest.”
American Airlines said it first informed customers of the price cap rules via Twitter responses to screenshots showing thousand-dollar flights.
We’re doing our part to help people get to where they need to be and capping fares for certain cities.
— americanair (@AmericanAir) December 28, 2022
In an interview with Nexstar MediaUS Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg said he was working with other airlines to make sure they offered affordable fares, but acknowledged his power to enforce those fares was limited.
“We will look at all the authorities that we have legally, but, again, we really expect airlines to go beyond the legal minimum and do the right thing,” he said. “He shouldn’t be taking coercive action from our department to get people taken care of.”
Those who suspect the airlines of mistreating them can file a consumer protection complaint with the USDOT. The department was unable to provide NPR with specific complaint numbers for the past week, but described the number as “increasing.”
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One more thing: don’t bet on Southwest refunding your ticket if you change airlines.
If you decide to pay for a new airfare, keep in mind that Southwest has no legal obligation to refund you the difference.
Southwest said it would honor “reasonable requests” for refunds, but it’s unclear what might constitute “reasonable.” (Customers wishing to make these refund requests should use this self-service portalthe company said).
This summer, Southwest told USDOT it would pay for meals, hotel accommodations and ground transportation for customers facing overnight cancellations. But he did not agree that he would cover the new booking on another airline while some of its competitors have done so.
Nothing is stopping Southwest from changing any of these policies now.
The Biden administration has proposed new rules regarding airline fees, but as it stands, US law currently only requires airlines to offer full refunds after a cancellation.