“Airfares are high because we still have so much pent-up demand, and, on the supply side, we still aren’t where we were pre-pandemic,” he said. “We’re recommending this year that people book by about Oct. 10. Once we get to that point, we expect flights to start to sell out, and fares will really start to rise.”
Christmas travel is also predicted to be more expensive. Heritage said to expect fares 30 percent higher around Christmas than they were in 2019, with an average domestic round-trip ticket for Christmas travel costing $463.
The “buy now” sentiment was echoed by Scott Keyes, founder of the airfare deal website Scott’s Cheap Flights. Keyes said we are officially past the point of finding bargains on holiday fares, so waiting for them will only leave you with a higher credit card bill. The last of the deals evaporated over the summer.
“There were legitimately cheap tickets for Christmas and New Year’s travel popping up in June or July,” he said. “That’s still not an excuse to continue to procrastinate because tickets are going to be almost certainly cheaper today for Christmas and New Year’s flights today than they will be next month.”
Higher airfares for the upcoming holidays can be blamed on the same factors that turned summer travel into a real-life Hieronymus Bosch painting. Air travel is back to pre-pandemic levels, but airlines are still lagging in capacity. Keyes said airlines are flying 10 percent to 15 percent fewer flights than they were in 2019.
While most airfare prognosticators agree that ticket prices will be higher this year, what’s unknown is whether airports are up to the challenge of handling Thanksgiving and Christmas crowds. Staffing shortages were to blame for many travelers’ problems over the summer, including long lines, lost luggage, and canceled flights. According to a spokeswoman for the trade association and lobbying group Airlines for America, carriers have been trimming capacity and hiring at record levels to catch up with demand.
“Airlines set their schedules months in advance and are constantly evaluating to optimize performance and prioritize smooth operations,” she said.
Airline delays and disruptions have been slowly dropping since peaking in June. According to the Department of Transportation, 30 percent of flights in Boston were disrupted (25 percent were delayed and 5 percent were canceled) in June. Over the past two weeks, that number fell to 19 percent (18 percent delayed and one percent canceled).
Not everyone is convinced.
“I wish I could say I’m optimistic about travel this holiday season, but I’m not. I don’t see that this industry has owned up to its problems fully,” said William McGee, senior fellow for aviation and travel at the American Economic Liberties Project. “When we’re talking about a shortage of commercial airline pilots, that’s a very long pipeline. Obviously, we don’t want to rush anyone through to be certified, so this is not a problem that will fix itself overnight.”
Airline pilot, author, and blogger Patrick Smith is sounding optimistic that holiday travel won’t resemble what many travelers experienced throughout the summer.
“Now that the summer is over, we’re entering a transition period as demand drops off between now and the winter holidays,” Smith said in an e-mail. “This should give the industry the time and slack it needs to restore staffing in time for the Thanksgiving rush. At least in theory. Keep in mind this is no small task, and the crisis extends across the entire industry: At the airlines and their various contractors, air traffic control, the TSA, airport retail, and so on.”
But Keyes said delays would likely persist even if the airlines and airports continue to restore staffing. New employees need time to get up to speed. A slow airport, reduced flight capacity, and a population eager to spend time with loved ones after two years of shutdowns and surges could turn holiday travel into the nightmare before Christmas and perhaps after Christmas, too.
Maybe this isn’t a good time to think about winter weather as a holiday travel wild card.
For now, the smartest thing you can do is purchase your ticket for holiday travel before prices rise. Or you can follow McGee’s lead.
“If I can’t drive to it, I’m not doing it,” he said. “I’m not going near an airport that week.”
Christopher Muther can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @Chris_Muther and Instagram @chris_muther.