After Independence Air shuts down Thursday, airfares in many of the more than 30 cities it serves could double or even triple, airfare experts predict.
"We're going to learn the true meaning of 'sky high,'" airline consumer expert Tom Parsons, CEO of Bestfares.com, said Monday. "People who live in places like Charleston, W.Va., are going to wish they had supported Independence Air."
Independence's shutdown announcement Monday should give most of its passengers time to get refunds or make other plans before the Washington area-based carrier stops flying Thursday night. Independence Air says passengers holding tickets for flights after Thursday will qualify for refunds from the airline or their credit card companies.
Under federal law, passengers with tickets on an insolvent airline are also eligible to fly standby on another airline for $50 one way if seats are available.
But the bad news is that passengers in many of Independence's destination cities up and down the East Coast will soon see dramatically higher ticket prices.
"Fares will go up -- and quickly," said consumer expert Terry Trippler of Cheapseats.com.
Struggling to stay alive, Independence offered some fares well below costs -- as low as $29 one way. Rivals such as United Airlines, Delta Air Lines and US Airways matched those fares to retain passengers and put pressure on Independence. After Thursday, they won't have to.
The Independence announcement caught some passengers by surprise and will disrupt many winter vacation plans. During November, the last month Independence reported its traffic, the airline carried nearly 300,000 passengers.
The family of 9-year-old Michaela Bailey had booked a Jan. 15 flight on Independence from Washington Dulles to Orlando for a Disney World vacation. The family still plans to go, but, "They may end up driving," said family friend Laurel Strocchi at Dulles on Monday.
Cornell University student Michael Balint, 21, was shocked to learn that Independence was even in trouble.
"It's closing?" he said Monday while awaiting a return flight from Dulles to Ithaca, N.Y.
The airline likely to benefit most from Independence's demise is United, which competes directly with Independence at Dulles, one of United's hub airports. Independence and United were business partners, with Independence's flights feeding United's, until the two parted ways over contract terms in 2004.
Independence, which filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection in November, will ask a bankruptcy judge Thursday for permission to process ticket refunds. Until then, customers can request refunds directly from their credit card companies. For passengers hoping to fly standby on other carriers, seats should be available on many flights because January is typically slow.
Parsons recommends passengers hoping to go standby call the other airline first and bring all documentation of their Independence ticket to the airport as proof of purchase.
"People might have to stand by for one or two flights, but inconvenience to passengers should be minimal," Parsons said.
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