What Are They Thinking? Airlines Hike Prices at the Strangest Time

But there may be a reprieve in the near future.

ByABC News
November 2, 2014, 6:27 AM
Surcharges on flights to Europe may ease this spring, says travel expert Rick Seaney.
Surcharges on flights to Europe may ease this spring, says travel expert Rick Seaney.
Getty Images

— -- About a week ago yet another U.S. airline launched yet another airfare hike. That's four in a row for October.

Not all these hikes stick and many attempt roll-backs. But think about it: This is happening while we're in the midst of an Ebola scare which included heart-stopping fears about a potentially-infected traveler on a commercial flight (fears that came to nothing, fortunately, when the traveler was found to be virus-free).

Then there's the little matter of the dropping price of oil. Did I say little? The price has dropped nearly 20 percent in recent months. If it keeps up, airlines overall are in a position to save billions on jet fuel in a single quarter.

To hike fares now seems like a gross injustice to passengers. Or is this a case of the airfare scale of justice finally righting itself?

If you're old enough to remember 9/11, you'll remember the immediate aftermath of empty, silent skies. It didn't last long, of course, but people were slow to return to their normal lets-hop-on-a-plane-and-go-somewhere patterns. That loss of demand, rising oil prices, too many empty-middle-seats, not to mention the recession of 2008 combined to cost airlines dearly and several went out of business.

That's when passengers had their collective thumb on the airfare scale of justice, pressure that kept fares low. If you had even a little money to spend, you could find incredible deals in 2009 like round-trip flights to Dublin for under $400.

It was tough but it got better. Airlines merged and purged, dropped empty seats and unpopular routes. It worked. It's their thumb on the scale now and they have zero incentive to lower fares.

Ebola fears? According to travelers I've polled, hot conversational topics on recent flights did not include a peep about the deadly disease (most yakked about the World Series) and demand remains high. As for dropping oil prices, no, airlines aren't going to pass the savings onto you; they're too busy spending it on new planes and sprucing up business class. If anything, they figure you and I will use our gasoline savings on something fun like a trip.

But hang on. There's a little light in this gloomy airfare tunnel: Flights to Europe. Not the fares per se which are actually pretty moderate; I mean the hefty surcharges embedded in the price of tickets to Europe which have been running in the mid-$400's. I make no promises, but if oil continues to drop (or maintain current price levels) it wouldn't surprise me to see the surcharges ease down just in time for spring.

Finally, there's the "love" factor. Or as on traveler put it, the airlines do have an incentive to drop ticket prices because "We'd like them more." I agree that airlines would love for us to love them - they certainly spend enough on advertising seeking our devotion - but business is business and dropping prices is not what investors like to see.

That doesn't mean deals aren't out there. They are. Look for airlines to serve up some very good prices at least once a week especially on fall and winter flights. In fact, look for the cheapest deals of the year starting a week after the New Year.