The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The United States is becoming a terrible place for air travel


If you’re searching for a cheap airfare, you’re looking in the wrong country. Really. Go anywhere but the United States. Go to Bangkok, where airfares for North American travelers are down 7 percent over the last year (according to Kayak). Or Milan, where airfares are down 13 percent. Or New Delhi, where airfares are down 11 percent.

The U.S.? This is not an easy country for airfare deal-seekers.

According to the latest data from the Department of Transportation, released Friday, the U.S.’s busiest airports are seeing airfares rise at roughly double the rate of inflation going back to 2011. (The increase is even greater if you go a few years deeper, but 2011 is a fairer baseline, as prices by then had rebounded from the recession.) Suffice to say, consumers aren’t winning. The major airlines — and there are fewer than there used to be — are getting better at stuffing planes and using data to guide prices, all while demand steadily picks up.

This is a case where the U.S. could benefit from a true cross-continent bare bones budget airliner, mimicking the role of Ryanair in Europe. In the U.S., Spirit and Allegiant are doing this along some routes, but not to the point where the average consumer is assured a low-cost carrier option when he flies. (Real low cost, not Southwest “low cost.”) Eventually, cheaper fuel could also knock down prices, but that hasn’t yet shown up in the government data, which measured fares through the third quarter.

At the U.S.’s 10 most-trafficked airports, average inflation-adjusted airfares have increased at eight of them since 2011. They’re up 11 percent at La Guardia, 9 percent at Chicago-O’Hare, 6 percent at Boston, and 16 percent in Atlanta.

What does it take, in this climate, for prices to fall or hold steady? (Again, adjusted for inflation.) Well, you need once-in-a-generation luck. Prices have only gone up 2 percent in Denver, and that’s largely because its homegrown airline, Frontier, decided to try its hand at the ultra low-cost game. Meantime prices have ticked down a half-percent at Dallas Fort Worth, in this case because the airport is facing new competition from its cross-town neighbor, Love Field. (There are more flights at Love after the repeal of restrictions on long-haul flights.)

Aviation experts say travelers can find certain cheap routes — the highly-competitive ones — at certain times of the year. It helps, they say, to travel on Tuesdays and Wednesdays. And be flexible with your dates. And book four to six weeks in advance.

But there is no such thing as a “cheap” city. (Denver comes closest.) Over the last year, according to the government data, only one large-ish U.S. city — Savannah, Ga. — saw fares discounted on par with the Bangkoks and Milans.

That was enough for Savannah to land on’s recently released Top Ten list of “great deal” destinations, the only U.S. city to make the cut. But Savannah is no great deal; it’s a bad deal, slightly cheaper than it used to be. The average airfare is $445, making it the 17th-priciest in the country. One year ago, it was the fourth-priciest.