Airfares rising with summer temps

Leon Burleson travels from Charlotte to Houston twice a month for his sales business, and for the past three years, he paid anywhere from $230 to $280 for a one-way plane ticket. The same ticket now, he said, costs him more than $500.

"I'm not going to make the trip," he said. "If this is what's going to happen, I'm going to cut two trips into one trip so that I spend the same amount of money. I've checked through September, and the price goes back down right at the end of summer."

An improved economy means travelers are willing to spend more money, but airlines have not replaced seats that were removed during the downturn. Because of the clash, airfare analysts have predicted higher fares and congested flights heading into the summer.

Airline consultant Michael Boyd predicts a 4 percent to 8 percent hike in fares in the U.S., with Charlotte at about 5 percent. Fees for checking any bags and newly imposed summer surcharges are an added burden.

American, Delta, Continental, United and US Airways added surcharges from $10 to $30 about two weeks ago. The fees are tacked onto ticket prices and are in effect from June to August.

Last summer, average fares in Charlotte had dropped from the year before after increasing from 2007 to 2008, according to federal data. The data isn't out yet for 2010, but consumers can take solace in the fact that average fares at Charlotte/Douglas International Airport dropped over the last decade.

In the second quarter of 2000, the average price of a domestic ticket was 43 percent above the national average at $486. During the same quarter in 2009, they had dropped to 4percent above the national average, or $313, according to the Bureau of Transportation Statistics.

As of fourth-quarter 2009, Charlotte fares were about 7percent above the national average at $341, making it the 31st most expensive airport out of the top 100 in the country.

Though having a US Airways hub in Charlotte gives local travelers the luxury of non-stop flights, it also means the airline dominates much of the market share in Charlotte.

Arizona-based US Airways accounts for about 65 percent of originating flights in Charlotte and 87 percent of both originating and connecting flights, the airport says. As a result, passengers don't have the option of booking with a bevy of low-fare carriers such as Southwest, which doesn't fly to the Charlotte airport.

How much air fares will rise this summer is unclear because prices depend on the market and on how much competition airports have, said Pauline Frommer, author of the Pauline Frommer travel guidebooks.

Annette Gross, who travels from Chicago to Charlotte twice a month to visit her grandchildren, said she paid $300 for tickets that normally cost her $200 to $250.

"It doesn't sound like much, but it makes a difference," she said. "I've traveled twice this month. Both flights were completely full flights. People were getting bumped, and the airlines don't give you anything - there are no apologies."

Local travel agencies have not yet reported a drastic rise in airfares. And the majority of travelers won't notice if they do, because prices fluctuate so much, said Gary Silverstein, owner of Charlotte-based Mann Travels.

While planning a trip for a client, Silverstein watched the price of a ticket to Palm Beach, Fla., bounce from $317 to $297 to $530 and back to $297 during a span of four weeks.

"There is no rhyme or reason to what goes on with them," he said.

A local traveler echoed his thoughts.

"Most individual ticket buyers don't know what they're spending because they're buying from so many different outlets and prices are always changing," said Wes Burton, who lives in Rock Hill and travels twice a month. "It's like hitting a moving target."