Just a year ago, struggling airlines were jacking up fares and introducing new fees like clockwork. Now, carriers are struggling again. But this time consumers are catching a break.
Airlines are cutting prices to fill more and more empty seats on their jets. Sales that began late last year are usually broad. They include popular European destinations like London and Rome and extend into the busy summer season when airlines typically make fat profits.
Carriers are reeling from plunging demand. International routes have taken the worst hit as corporations slash travel budgets and ground first- and business-class fliers who provide a big share of airline revenues.
Domestic travel is hurting, too. Southwest Airlines, which flies only in the United States, saw business passenger traffic weaken in February and the first week of March, chief executive Gary Kelly said at an airline investors conference Tuesday. "I don't know we've reached the bottom," he said.
So, airlines are trying to lure leisure travelers to fly this summer with some of the cheapest prices in years.
"I didn't expect it coming out of record-high or at least decade-high fares (last year)," said Rick Seaney, chief executive of the fare research site Farecompare.com. "These are prices we won't see outside of a recession."
U.S.-to-Europe fares are down 22 percent for the year, according to the travel Web site Farecast.com. Eye-popping prices have included $400 round-trip tickets from New York City to Rome and $500 for Chicago to Paris.
British Airways is selling nonstop return flights from Tampa International to London for $700 through June, about $500 less than a year ago, says Debbie Hunter, owner of Bay Pines Travel in St. Petersburg. Belize is a bargain at $550; Madrid a markdown through late May at $720.
"A lot of people who didn't take trips last year have wanted to this year — if they're in a financial position to do it," she said.
The price point for coast-to-coast flights has dropped to $99 each way, plus taxes and fees. Tampa to Los Angeles, including Delta's once-daily nonstop, was available for $239 Tuesday. Southwest was selling Las Vegas as low as $219 and US Airways offered Salt Lake City for $200.
Keep a few things in mind when shopping: Fares change daily, sometimes several times a day. Start checking early — even two or three months early — to get a feel for what's a good price.
Tuesday afternoon is prime hunting time, Seaney said, because that's when weekly sale fares are matched by competitors.
Finally, don't forget to factor in fees for checked luggage, sports equipment and reserved seats. They can quickly blow up a bargain fare.
Steve Huettel can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 226-3384.