It sounds like good news for travelers flying out of Charlotte: Fares are falling, according to new federal data released last week.
But are they really? Some seasoned travelers say they've seen little change.
Charlotte airfares are always a hot topic, and sometimes a sore spot. Because Charlotte/Douglas International is a hub airport, there's less competition, and less competition translates to higher prices.
The Transportation Department reported that the average one-way fare from Charlotte in the second quarter of last year was $201, or nearly 10 percent less than in the same period the year before. Charlotte, which had been the third most expensive airport in the country, now ranks No. 9, according to the figures.
The federal data is based on the actual ticket prices paid by travelers, so it is considered the most reliable. Unfortunately, because the data are delayed by more than half a year, it's difficult to get a clear picture of where Charlotte fares are heading now.
And there's a lot going on affecting Charlotte fares. Fares could be falling because AirTran Airways is expanding and US Airways has announced fare cuts to what had been high-price cities. Or they could be rising because low-fare airline Independence Air folded and U.S. airlines are cutting capacity, allowing them to charge more.
For a clearer picture, the Observer turned to Neil Bainton of FareCompare, a Dallas-based airfare research firm and travel search engine. He sent us a spreadsheet of the 1,716 different fares published by the major airlines between Charlotte and the top 50 markets, for last week and October of last year.
He summed up his data this way: "In general there were some big drops, but many fares moved up by $10 or more."
Here's what happened to those 1,716 published fares since October:
About 27 percent fell.
About 33 percent stayed the same.
About 15 percent rose by $10 or less.
About 25 percent rose by $10 or more.
As you might expect, the biggest cuts in airfares from Charlotte came on what had been some of the priciest tickets -- last-minute fares that had been more than $1,000. The biggest cut came from Continental Airlines, which in October had been selling a three-day advance ticket to Seattle for $2,224 but was selling the same ticket last week for just $550 -- a savings of nearly $1,700.
Some airlines have been moving away from those super-high fares, on the theory they can make more money attracting several people to buy somewhat lower fares rather than one person who's willing to drop two grand for a flight to Seattle.
That said, there are still plenty of extremely high fares from Charlotte. Of the 1,716 fares, including first-class seats, 283 were listed at more than $1,000, and 43 of those were more than $2,000. In many cases, there are cheaper flights available, even for those with inflexible schedules. For instance, last week there was a published fare from Charlotte to Vancouver, British Columbia, for $3,223, but there were also walk-up fares costing half as much to the same destination, so it's unclear whether someone is actually paying that sky-high fare.
Even veteran travelers say they can't figure out if fares overall are up or down.
"I can't believe that average ticket costs are decreasing," says Ray Polhill, an executive recruiter based in Charlotte who travels a couple times a month. He says it seems as though there are still plenty of business fares approaching $1,000, and even the last-minute e-savers don't seem like the deals they once were.
"I refuse to spend $800 or a $1,000 for a short trip on less than 14 days' advance purchase," he says. "I try ... to find another way."
-- Tony Mecia: (704) 358-5069; firstname.lastname@example.org
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