Airline prices trend higher, including at Tampa International Airport

That pricey airline ticket you bought this year wasn't a fluke.

Uncle Sam recently rolled out the numbers: Domestic airfares jumped to an average of $328.12 in the first quarter of 2010, up 4.7 percent from a year earlier. It was the highest three-month average fare since the record $358 in the third quarter of 2008, the Bureau of Transportation Statistics said.

Tampa International Airport was cheaper, with an average fare of $282.38. The price rose 4.5 percent year-to-year.

Get used to it.

By all accounts, domestic fares soared 10 percent or more in early summer before slowing down a bit. Airlines positioned themselves to raise fares by cutting flights or switching to smaller jets. With fewer seats to sell, carriers are filling more seats with high-paying business travelers.

This shift in what financial types call "pricing power" raises some interesting questions.

Are consumers getting gouged? Is Tampa International holding its own with price-sensitive fliers on the fringes of the Tampa Bay area?

The trade group for major U.S. airlines, the Air Transport Association, said fares remain historically cheap even considering their bounce from a weak 2009. Since the peak in 2008, prices tanked as the recession took hold and traffic dried up.

"Increasing fare levels should be kept in perspective," said ATA president James May. "Not only are the airlines nowhere near recovering from devastating losses, airfares have not come close to keeping pace with inflation."

The federal number crunchers back that up. Adjusted for inflation, the first-quarter average fare of $340 in 2001 would cost $432.14 in 2010 dollars.

That said, the BTS doesn't count add-on charges collected at the airport or on the plane, such as fees for checked bags, pillows and snacks. Not so long also, those were wrapped into your ticket price, remember?

This latest list ranked Tampa International at No. 19 for lowest average fare among the 100 largest U.S. airports. Respectable but barely within shouting distance of Orlando (fourth), Fort Lauderdale (sixth) and Fort Myers (10th).

Orlando International — Florida's largest airport — already attracts nearly 1,800 passengers a day from Tampa Bay, said a consultant hired by the Hillsborough County Aviation Authority. They're mostly looking for bargain flights to San Juan, Detroit, Philadelphia and Chicago,

Here's the problem: a ticket price gap between the two airports.

As recently as mid 2004, Tampa's average fare was a tad cheaper, but hardly enough to buy a soft drink at the terminal. But the spread widened gradually, and now the latest report shows Orlando's $245 average fare beat Tampa International by more than $37.

Orlando International, already twice the size of TIA, has bulked up on new flights by low-fare carriers AirTran, JetBlue and Spirit, said John Wheat, TIA's interim executive director. Travelers typically choose a flight based on schedule, price and frequent flier affiliation.

But if you live in east Hillsborough or Polk County and want to fly with your family, a flight that's nearly $40 cheaper out of Orlando might make a difference.

• • •

If you're an aviation buff or just interested in why airlines do the things they do, check out a new column in USA Today's travel website.

Ask the Captain (www.usatoday.com/travel/columnist/cox/index.htm) will be hosted by John Cox, a retired US Airways pilot and airline safety expert. Cox lives in St. Petersburg and metro Washington, D.C., where he runs a safety consulting business.

Steve Huettel can be reached at huettel@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3384.

Airline prices trend higher, including at Tampa International Airport 08/17/10 [Last modified: Tuesday, August 17, 2010 11:58pm]

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