Hawaii’s Hilo Airport loses sole nonstop flight to Calif.

In this week’s news, strong passenger demand is contributing to major fare increases, especially for trips over the November and December holidays; low-cost Breeze Airways will add three more California routes this winter, including one from San Francisco; United drops a Hawaii route, and Hawaiian Airlines inks a new interline agreement in the islands; Air Tahiti Nui extends its newest U.S. route to Europe as Finnair drops a Los Angeles flight; Spirit Airlines shareholders vote in favor of a merger with JetBlue, but the deal still faces federal antitrust scrutiny; Alaska Airlines pilots agree to a new labor contract, but those at American are seeking federal mediation; Lufthansa unveils an overhaul of its long-haul aircraft, including front-cabin privacy suites; and Reno Tahoe Airport’s board approves a major expansion plan.

Although the summer peak travel season is over, passenger demand continues to grow, pushing airfares ever higher — especially for the upcoming holidays. Travel booking site Hopper reports that fares for Thanksgiving and Christmas travel, which dipped slightly since August, are rising again. For Thanksgiving trips, the average fare in early October was up 24% from last year to $290, while the average Christmas ticket was $430, up 53% year over year and 17% higher than pre-pandemic 2019. The site predicts those prices will keep rising to $450 and $580, respectively, for last-minute ticket purchases. 

Forbes reports that according to U.S. consumer price index data for September, airfares rose 42.9% from the same month last year — “the highest [increase] on record and more than five times higher than the overall inflation rate of 8.2%,” Forbes reported. And an NBC News headline this week warned that “Holiday air travel is set to be one of the most expensive on record.” The reason is simple: supply and demand. While millions of travelers are eager to get back in the air after a couple of years of staying at home during the pandemic, the airline industry still hasn’t ramped up its passenger capacity to pre-pandemic levels. More travelers looking for tickets plus fewer seats available equals higher fares.

A TSA officer works at Terminal B at Oakland International Airport in March 2020.

A TSA officer works at Terminal B at Oakland International Airport in March 2020.

The Washington Post/The Washington Post via Getty Images

The number of passengers screened at the Transportation Security Administration’s airport checkpoints topped 2 million on 15 of the first 18 days in October — just a tiny fraction below 2019 figures for the same dates. The growth is fueled not just by domestic leisure trips but also by more international and business travel. Delta said this week that its trans-Atlantic revenues in the third quarter were 12% higher than in 2019 as European nations dropped COVID-19 restrictions on international visitors and that business travel revenues were back to 80% of pre-pandemic levels at the end of the third quarter. United said its third-quarter operating revenue was 13.2% higher than in 2019, and it expects to see even stronger results in the fourth quarter.

While there is increasing speculation that the U.S. economy is headed toward a recession, United said three trends are “more than fully offsetting” those concerns: “air travel is still in the COVID recovery phase, hybrid work gives customers the freedom and flexibility to travel for leisure more often, and external supply challenges will limit industry supply for years to come.”

The ultra-low-cost carrier Breeze Airways announced its next round of expansion this week, including three new California routes — one from San Francisco and two from San Bernardino. On Feb. 8, 2023, Breeze will introduce two weekly flights between SFO and Cincinnati with fares starting at $99 one way. There is currently no nonstop service between the two cities, according to Google Flights. It will be the airline’s sixth destination from SFO; it already flies to Richmond, Virginia; Charleston, South Carolina; Louisville, Kentucky; Provo, Utah; and San Bernardino. The new routes from San Bernardino, both starting Feb. 16 and operating twice weekly, include a short hop to Las Vegas and a one-stop transcontinental flight to Hartford, Connecticut.

Breeze focuses on adding routes that offer little or no competing service. Elsewhere in the Western U.S., Breeze will expand at Phoenix with new twice-weekly nonstops to Hartford starting Feb. 9; to Richmond, Virginia, on Feb. 10; and to Bentonville, Arkansas, on Feb. 17, along with one-stop service to New Orleans beginning Feb. 17.

Downtown and the harbor in Hilo, Hawaii, are pictured in December 2016.

Downtown and the harbor in Hilo, Hawaii, are pictured in December 2016.

George Rose/Getty Images

United Airlines is planning to discontinue one of its Hawaii routes. On Jan. 7, the airline will end its service from Los Angeles to Hilo International Airport, on the east side of Hawaii’s Big Island — the only nonstop route between Hilo and the mainland. The airport will still have plenty of service to Maui and Honolulu for mainland connections. The Big Island’s busiest airport is Kona, on the west coast, which has nonstop service to the mainland from several airlines. 

In other Hawaii news, Hawaiian Airlines said this week it has signed an interline ticketing agreement with its smaller interisland competitor Mokulele Airlines, which operates more than 150 daily departures. “This new agreement means that passengers can purchase connections from Mokulele-served airports like Molokai, Lanai, and Kapalua to any Hawaiian Airlines destination worldwide in a single transaction, and upon check-in at the originating airport, receive boarding passes for their connecting flights,” Hawaiian said. “Interline passengers traveling from the Continental U.S. or abroad who are flying on Hawaiian Airlines will also benefit from having checked luggage transferred automatically to their Mokulele destination.” Connections between Mokulele and Hawaiian flights will be at Honolulu.

Air Tahiti Nui, which recently introduced twice-weekly Seattle-Papeete flights as part of its partnership with Alaska Airlines, plans to extend that route to Paris Charles de Gaulle next summer, offering Papeete-Seattle-Paris service from June 12 through Sept. 4. At the same time, it will reduce its Papeete-Los Angeles-Paris schedule from seven flights a week to five. In other international news, on Oct. 26, Finnair is due to end its nonstop service between Los Angeles International and Stockholm. 

A Spirit Airlines plane lands at Harry Reid International Airport on Oct. 15 in Las Vegas. Holiday airfare prices are expected to be the most expensive in the last five years.

A Spirit Airlines plane lands at Harry Reid International Airport on Oct. 15 in Las Vegas. Holiday airfare prices are expected to be the most expensive in the last five years.

Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

That planned merger of low-cost Spirit Airlines with JetBlue got a boost this week as more than 50% of Spirit’s shareholders voted to approve the deal, the company said. It added that the two airlines expect to conclude the regulatory process and close the transaction “no later than the first half of 2024.” Spirit CEO Ted Christie said his company will continue its “ongoing discussions with regulators” during that time and predicted the merger “will create the most compelling national low-fare challenger to the dominant U.S. carriers.”

Frontier Airlines lost its competing bid to acquire Spirit, but at the Routes World conference in Las Vegas this week, Frontier CEO Barry Biffle questioned whether a combined JetBlue-Spirit could truly operate as a low-fare challenger unless JetBlue expects to see its profit margins decline. “It’s like Nordstrom purchased a discount store like Walmart and then closed it down,” he said, noting that Frontier expects to benefit from the elimination of its largest low-cost competitor.

But before the merger can happen, JetBlue and Spirit still face their biggest hurdle: approval of the Justice Department’s antitrust regulators, who might not look kindly on a deal that would create the country’s fifth-largest airline. For the past few weeks, a trial has been underway in federal court over the DOJ’s challenge to JetBlue and American Airlines’ Northeast Alliance, by which those two carriers have ramped up their code-sharing and schedule coordination in the Boston and New York markets.

Lawyers and experts for both sides have been arguing whether that alliance benefits consumers by reducing fares or hurts them by restricting competition. The two airlines contend that the alliance has in fact allowed them to increase service in those markets, helping them compete against Delta and United. The two airlines filed a motion for the judge to dismiss the DOJ’s case immediately, but the judge this week denied that motion.  

Last spring, pilots at Alaska Airlines voted to authorize a strike if their union’s negotiators failed to make progress on a satisfactory new labor contract — something they had been trying to do for three years. But the strike threat has receded now as the airline announced that rank-and-file pilots voted overwhelmingly in favor of a new three-year contract. The deal gives the pilots wage hikes of up to 23%, more flexibility in scheduling their flights, greater job security and increased retirement plan contributions. In Texas, meanwhile, the leaders of American Airlines’ Allied Pilots Association said they will be asking the National Mediation Board to intervene in their ongoing negotiations with management for a new contract, as talks have stalled over wage increases and working conditions.

Flight attendants are seen shortly before the launch of a Lufthansa Airbus A380 to Beijing at Munich Airport.

Flight attendants are seen shortly before the launch of a Lufthansa Airbus A380 to Beijing at Munich Airport.

picture alliance/dpa/picture alliance via Getty Images

Lufthansa is the latest big international carrier to announce plans for a major overhaul of its long-haul aircraft interiors, including first class, business class, premium economy and economy. Following an industry trend, Lufthansa said its first-class cabin will feature large (almost 1-meter-wide) seats that are convertible into beds, housed in a compartment with “nearly ceiling-high walls that can be closed for privacy.” The first-class suites also provide a dining table for one or two people (sitting across from each other), as well as “a large, personal wardrobe” in each suite. The new business-class seats, convertible into 2-meter-long beds, are also suites, with “higher walls and sliding doors that completely close.” They’ll have extra-large monitors, wireless charging and more storage space, including a personal wardrobe, and all business-class seats will have direct aisle access. 

In economy class, the carrier will expand on the “Sleeper’s Row” product that it introduced last year. “In the ‘Sleeper’s Row 2.0’, one must simply fold up a leg rest and utilize the additional mattress on offer, for rest and relaxation on a reclining surface that is 40 percent larger compared to the original ‘Sleeper’s Row,’” Lufthansa said. “Also in the future, Economy Class passengers will also have the option of booking a vacant neighbor seat.” The new interiors, which are branded “Allegris,” will go into more than 100 wide-body aircraft. The new business class is already available on a handful of new 787-9s and A350s, Lufthansa noted. The carrier has just started to take delivery of its first new 787s, and the aircraft’s first route to the U.S. is expected to be Frankfurt-Newark, possibly starting in December.

Reno-Tahoe International Airport is going to get a lot bigger. The airport’s board has voted to approve a $500 million expansion plan that will give the facility two new passenger concourses with 28 gates, according to the Reno Gazette Journal. The new concourse construction won’t start for a while, but last week the airport held a groundbreaking ceremony for an expansion of its existing ticketing hall and improvements on its inner roadways. “The initial construction work to expand the ticketing hall will impact passenger drop-offs as well as access to the facility,” the newspaper said, noting that the airport’s three inner roadways are already closed, limiting drop-offs and pickups to the three outer lanes. The $32 million overhaul of the ticketing hall will continue through 2023. As for the new concourses, that “will take some time to start as the airport secures funding for the project,” the newspaper said. 

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