Goodbye Continental, Hello Higher Airfares

Is the United merger good for you and your airport?

These days, no carrier seems to last too long as "The World's Biggest Airline."

A couple of years ago, American Airlines claimed the honor, until Delta wrested away the crown after its merger with Northwest. Ultimately, though, Delta had to defer to United.

The new mega-United that is, now that it's hooked up with Continental.

So is it goodbye forever to Continental? Well…kind of, although the brand will not completely disappear, unlike say, those ghostly smiles from PSA planes past (yes, Pacific Southwest used to paint "smiles" on its aircraft, just under the nose).

No, Continental will live on in its colors, livery and logo (that stylized globe) which will adorn the new airline's planes even though the name will be "United." I'm sure we'll get used to it.

And now that I've dispatched with the "style" portion of this column -- what about airfare prices?

Well, it's not looking too good for air-travel cheapskates -- and in the short term, this has nothing to do with the mega-merger, which won't be complete for at least a year (if at all, depending on looming anti-trust scrutiny).

Video: Continental and United airlines consider merger.
Continental and United Airlines consider merger

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In a celebratory conference call with media and financial analysts earlier this week, United CEO Glenn Tilton and Continental CEO Jeff Smisek (the latter will run the new United) said merging their companies was "profoundly pro-competitive." They said airfare increases were not built into their estimates of the "benefits of synergies."

Yes, but -- are airfares going up or not? The executives simply said the newly-merged United Airlines will, "as always," be responsive to market demand, and that they will price their product (meaning your tickets) "appropriately". As Smisek told his audience, airlines don't set airfares -- the marketplace does -- but that marketplace is about to lose another competitor.

Actually, the marketplace is changing even as we speak. Which is good news and bad news for the flying public.

The good news is that the economy is in recovery mode, which means more of us can actually afford to fly in the first place. But back when the economy was tanking -- especially late last spring -- airfares were at ten-year lows, which is why you could find astonishing deals like roundtrip flights to Europe, including all taxes and fees, for under $400.

International prices had nowhere to go but up, and I'm afraid they've done just that: flights to some worldwide destinations are now 30, 40, and even 50 percent higher than last year. In fact, if you can find a summer fare to Europe for under $1,000 roundtrip this year, you, my friend, have got yourself a deal.

As for domestic airfares, they too are inching upward -- not nearly at the pace of international fares, but they're making headway, and here we may well see some of the effects of the United-Continental merger, in the long run, anyway.

First, you have to understand that only about 100 cities in the U.S. are served by low cost carriers (airlines like Southwest, JetBlue, AirTran and the others); those cheap flights help keep prices in check for the short-term, despite the mega-merger.

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