Friday, January 29, 2016

Lower oil prices don't necessarily equal lower costs to fly

Looking toward spring and summer vacation options?

You may be in luck because lower oil prices and greater competition have translated to lower airfares — in some cases.

Port Columbus travelers may not have benefited as much as people flying from big hub cities, but the return of low-cost carrier Frontier Airlines this spring should help.

"We're seeing that the level of savings the airlines pass on to consumers is largely dependent on how much competitive pressure there is," said Patrick Surry, chief data scientist for airfare app Hopper. "If you're flying from a really competitive hub like Boston (where Hopper is based), you're tending to see those discounts quicker. Less-served routes or airports won't see it passed along right way."

At this week's meeting of the Columbus Regional Airport Authority, the board's CEO, Elaine Roberts, said that Frontier Airlines' return to Columbus should help bring down fares on the routes it will serve, which initially will be Denver, Philadelphia, Las Vegas and Orlando, Fla.

Although flights won't start until May or June, depending on the route, that's already evident: On Thursday, a round-trip flight to Philadelphia on Frontier in June was priced at as little as $98 flying Tuesday to Tuesday. That's less than half the cost of a similar flight in April, which is priced at $235 on American Airlines.

As always, the greatest savings can be had by those who can be flexible. Frontier doesn't fly every day, and Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Saturdays typically are cheaper days to fly with any airline.

George Hobica, founder of the website Airfare Watchdog, says travelers searching for the lowest price also should check surrounding airports, as every airport has a different mix of airlines and competition.

For example, Southwest Airlines has been advertising round-trip fares as low as $108 between Dayton, an hour west of Columbus, and Chicago. From Port Columbus, the lowest fare to Chicago on Southwest is $192.

Hobica points to Boston, Nashville and Washington/Baltimore as cities that currently have low fares from Columbus. All those routes are served by Southwest. He and Curry also suggest that those seeking a low fare should check every day and set up price alerts with travel sites or apps; airlines will sometimes drop prices quietly for just a day or two, then raise them as much as 30 or 40 percent.

Some still may wonder why airfares haven't fallen as far as gas prices at the pump. The reason boils down to "hedging."

For years, airlines have been locking in a set fuel price as a way to guard against price spikes. In recent months, though, airlines that hedged were hurt as fuel prices continued to plummet.

When airlines do benefit from lower costs, they, like all companies, aren't in the business of passing along 100 percent of those savings to consumers.


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