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As if canceled flights and lost luggage weren’t enough trouble, would-be Southwest Airlines passengers faced another obstacle to holiday travel this week: High fares on other carriers.
Southwest announced Thursday will resume normal operations this weekend after canceling nearly 13,000 flights last week. Many of those who tried to find flights on different airlines faced high prices – in some cases, the fare for the same route has increased three or four times in the last few months.
Take, for example, a one-way ticket from Chicago to Denver, the two cities most affected by Southwest’s operational errors. Those Googling for tickets on Thursday afternoon could find the best price on Delta Air Lines: $599. A week ago, the same flight cost $139.
But even routes unaffected by the storm, such as a flight from Los Angeles to San Francisco, were starting at $415 on United, more than four times the price three days ago.
The trend was strong enough to raise questions even for those ignored by the Southwest. Were airlines taking advantage of weary travelers?
Before you start throwing around Despite the term “price gouging,” here’s a look at what some experts told NPR this week.
Yes, the rates are very high. But so is the demand
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“It’s actually pretty normal for last-minute booking prices to go up like this,” said Sally French, lead travel writer at NerdWallet.
“Unlike other forms of travel where you can find a great last-minute hotel room or cruise cabin that a company is trying to fill, airline tickets rarely offer last-minute deals.”
Thrifty Traveler executive editor Kyle Potter said last-minute fares are always more expensive in part because the supply of open seats this late in the booking game is incredibly low.
“Planes are regularly 90-95% full these days, even 100% on a typical day. Demand is as high as it can be right now. [We’re] We’re going into the new year, plus the storm added to that,” NPR said.
Not to mention Southwest’s relative size: The airline is one of the nation’s largest carriers. That means hundreds of thousands of Southwest customers were suddenly stranded this week, all at the same time searching fare websites and scrolling through rebooking lines, doing the same to their families back home.
“I really think part of what we’re seeing here is less about the price itself, but more about the record high awareness of these pricing models,” Potter said. “Hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of Americans are suddenly scrambling to find last-minute tickets on another carrier. Many more are just looking for curiosity.”
Laura Lindsay, Skyscanner’s global travel trends expert, agrees that the sudden change in inventory has an impact on travelers as they book seats.
“Airlines use complex algorithms to set prices […] “Overriding all of this is one factor that is the ultimate determinant of the price paid: demand,” he said.
“Flight prices are all based on supply and demand, and when demand is high, so are airfares.”
What you see in that search tool may not have room for savings
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There’s also an “alphabet soup” of fare class offerings, each with its own rules, restrictions and, yes, price, Potter said.
“Airlines regularly sell out certain fares in the waning days before departure – they don’t want to load the cheapest fare classes at the last minute and may need to keep some seats open for crew, upgrades, flight changes, etc.,” Potter said.
A good practice is to check the airline’s website for your preferred fare, Potter said. Sometimes clicking can show it as a business or first class ticket.
You should check the options again later: Sometimes airlines will add a cheaper economy seat when they finalize crew schedules or flight changes.
Airlines have said they will limit fare increases over the weekend, but details are sketchy
As Southwest’s wave of cancellations drags on, including airlines American, Alaska, Delta and United all said they would implement fare restrictions domestically over the next few days.
NPR requested specifics from airlines, including a list of affected cities and caps for caps. None have detailed their policies. Lack of price transparency is standard operating procedure in the highly competitive aviation industry.
“Departure fares are built into Alaska’s daily pricing model,” the West Coast-based airline said. “Additionally, we have further reduced fares in select cities and are doing everything we can to get guests affected by the winter storms to their destinations.”
United Airlines said it was limiting fares through Saturday, focusing on “domestic and Latin American markets served by Southwest.”
American Airlines said it first notified customers of the price cap rules through Twitter responses to screenshots showing the $1,000 flights.
We do our best to get people where they need to be and limit fares for select cities.
— americanair (@AmericanAir) December 28, 2022
In an interview with Nexstar MediaUS Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg said he was working with other airlines to ensure they offered affordable fares, but acknowledged he had limited authority to impose such fares.
“We will look at every authority we have legally, but we still expect airlines to go beyond the legal minimum and do the right thing,” he said. “It shouldn’t take mandatory action from our department to take care of people.”
Those who suspect airlines have mistreated them can file a consumer protection complaint with the USDOT. The department could not provide specific complaint numbers to NPR last week, but described the number as “increasing.”
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One more thing: Don’t bet on getting a refund on your Southwest fare if you switch airlines
If you decide to pay for a new ticket, be aware that Southwest has no legal obligation to pay you the difference.
Southwest said they will honor “reasonable requests” for compensation, but it’s unclear what “reasonable” might be. (Customers who wish to make these compensation claims must 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 it would cover rebooking on another airline while some of its competitors do.
Now, there’s nothing stopping Southwest from changing any of these policies.
The Biden administration has proposed new rules on airline fees, but as it stands now, US law currently requires airlines to offer full refunds only after cancellations.