Expect the cost of flying to gain altitude in 2012

Airlines were walloped by rising oil prices in 2011 and fliers were forced to fork out more for airfares.

Experts say 2012 could hold much of the same.

"We're going to see higher airfares," said Anne Banas, executive editor of SmarterTravel, a website for travelers.

But how much higher is a matter of debate.

"Fares are probably going to inch up," said George Hobica, founder of travel website He said airlines are cutting the number of seats they fly and mergers may eliminate competition.

Carlson Wagonlit Travel is forecasting a 3.5 to 4.1 percent jump in North American airfares. Other experts say fares could climb higher, partly because of more regulation.

One key may be the cost of fuel. An increase in oil prices early in 2011 helped push fares up 8.5 percent in the second quarter of last year, the latest figure available from the U.S. Department of Transportation.

Here's a look at what else consumers can expect from air travel in 2012:

Consolidation : Besides fewer plane seats, there also could be fewer airlines flying if a merger involving American Airlines, which recently entered Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection, takes place.

Tempe, Ariz.-based US Airways, which operates about 90 percent of Charlotte's daily flights, has been mentioned as a possible merger partner for American, despite both carriers' labor issues.

US Airways CEO Doug Parker advocates airline consolidation.

"We have a stand-alone airline that works," Parker told the Observer in August. "The industry's also shown that consolidation can, in the right situation, make airlines even stronger. We're prepared for either."

Deals still around: Even if there's a general increase in prices, deals still will be available, especially during off-peak hours or mid-week, Rick Seaney, chief executive officer of FareCompare, said recently.

As it becomes harder to shave costs off air travel, people will change their planning process, Banas predicted. "Cheap deals and what's available will dictate where they travel."

Internet flash sales or limited-run discounts that help airlines and hotels to fill empty seats and beds - as well as "surprise" travel deals - will be increasingly popular, she added.

More charges for extras: Comfort, perks and new ways to upgrade will be much discussed in 2012, according to

With more airlines now charging for extra legroom seats or for advance seat selections, the cost of air travel will creep up.

Still, mini-upgrades like these may appeal to economy fliers seeking premium-class indulgences at minimal costs.

Delta Air Lines plans to add Economy Comfort seats that offer 4 more inches of legroom and more reclining capacity across its fleet by this summer.

Fees: Carriers have increasingly used fees to raise revenue even if they hold the line on fares. In 2012, "airlines will think of new ways to raise revenue," Hobica said.

US Airways charges $25 for domestic and some international passengers' first piece of checked luggage and higher prices for each additional piece.

Starting Jan. 24, Fla.-based Spirit Airlines will begin charging customers $5 for boarding passes printed by an airport agent. It will charge $2 for kiosk-printed boarding passes starting June 30.

Spirit's cornucopia of fees has irked some fliers.

A fee to speak to a real person at airport check-in could be another reality facing travelers soon, Hobica added.

New rules: New U.S Department of Transportation regulations on fee disclosures are effective Jan. 24.

Among them are rules that will ban post-purchase price increases; require airlines to disclose baggage fees at the point of purchasing a flight; require the same baggage allowances and fees throughout a passenger's journey, and require airlines to give prompt notification of delays of more than 30 minutes.

Another rule that will require airlines to include all taxes and fees in the advertised fares will take effect Jan. 26. Staff writer Ely Portillo contributed.