Why Are Flights So Expensive Right Now?
From pilot shortages to pricey jet fuel, there are many reasons why flights are so expensive right now.
If you've been trying to book a summer getaway, you may have been surprised by flight prices. Many hopeful travelers are asking why flight prices are so expensive right now. Despite travelers' best efforts at being flexible with their date and flying to historically-cheap destinations, prices are still high—especially compared to the reduced prices of 2019 and 2020. In the past year, the consumer price index for airline tickets spiked up 25 percent—outpacing inflation at 8 percent.
In the past year, flight prices have dramatically increased on both domestic and international flights, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. With increased demand after pandemic restrictions lifted, staffing shortages, and an increase in jet fuel prices, there has been a perfect storm of factors leading to higher price and a lack of affordable options for travel. Many airlines have been cutting flights too.
Here are the reasons that experts say flight prices are so expensive right now, plus how long you have to wait before they start to go down again and how you can best find cheaper options in the meantime.
READ THIS NEXT: 12 U.S. Islands to Add to Your Bucket List—No Passport Required.
Six Reasons Why Flights Are So Expensive
Demand Is Back Up From The Pandemic Leading to More Expensive Flights
In late 2021, travel started picking back up as countries started opening up and some travel restrictions were eased. Now, most countries have dropped their restrictions, and the pent-up demand for travel means that many people are starting to travel again at the same time.
With travel now back at a pre-pandemic level, according to industry experts, airlines have increased their flight prices in conjunction with demand. That's one major reason why flights are so expensive right now.
"Since January, we've seen booking activity on par with pre-pandemic levels," says Stuart Lewis, a travel agent and editor of The Travel Scoop. "If anything, consumer demand has been a little higher in the first quarter of this year compared to 2019."
But the increased demand isn't universal. In fact, depending on where flights are going, some demand has even gone down in the past year. While demand is higher for domestic flights, some international fares are lagging, including travel to Asia from the United States.
"Post-holiday bookings for domestic flights and shorter international flights jumped at the end of 2022 and at the start of this year," says Julie Ramhold, a consumer analyst for DealNews. "But longer international flights are still experiencing lower demand, though some industry experts say they expect that demand to come back up this year."
Jet Fuel Prices Were On the Rise
When it comes to determining flight prices, one of the most important considerations that companies make is the price of jet fuel. When it costs more to purchase it, that's going to be reflected in the price of a ticket.
"Jet fuel prices are a considerable cost for airlines and remain about 16 percent higher than pre-pandemic levels," says Hayley Berg, lead economist at the travel app Hopper. "Though fuel costs have improved considerably in the last 15 months, prices remain the highest they've been since late 2014."
The price of jet fuel can be impacted by several different factors, including the war in Ukraine, which led to a dramatic spike in prices. At its peak, jet fuel cost $172 a barrel in June 2022, according to the International Air Transport Association. But the price has been dropping since it hit the peak last summer.
"Jet fuel prices have been coming down after spiking around the onset of the Ukraine war, in much the same way that consumer fuel prices have," Lewis says. "They are pretty much back to 2019 levels."
Flying Around the Russian Airspace
One surprising reason why flights are so expensive right now: The prices for jet fuel increased after the start of the war in Ukraine, but the war also had another impact on airline travel. After Russia invaded Ukraine on Feb. 24, 2022, many countries in the West, including the United States, Canada, Great Britain, and members of the European Union, banned Russian planes from flying in their airspace.
In retaliation, Russia banned airlines from approximately 36 countries from using its airspace. That makes for longer flights from the United States to travel to destinations in Asia, which leads to an increase in prices.
"Most airlines lock in aviation fuel prices far in advance, some more successful than others, but the price increase, coupled with the increased distance for flights traveling around Russian airspace, have certainly contributed to higher fares," Lewis says.
Major Staffing Shortages Across Airlines
In the early part of the COVID-19 pandemic, airlines laid off more than 90,000 employees, including pilots, flight attendants, and baggage handlers, in the U.S. alone. That led to an extreme shortage in employees when travel started taking off again in 2021 and 2022, and that shortage led to an increase in the cost of fares. While many employees were furloughed, others opted to take incentive packages to leave their companies, according to The Washington Post.
Many chose to retire early. There's a mandatory retirement age for pilots at 65, but some opted to bow out a few years sooner. Approximately 13,500 pilots and flight attendants at American Airlines chose to take a voluntary leave or retire early, according to the Dallas Morning News.
"We're seeing the highest flight prices we've seen in years, and, part of that, is due to staffing shortages that airlines are facing," Ramhold says. "A smaller pool of staff means being able to staff fewer flights, which means being able to have fewer flights in the first place."
A staffing shortage also leads to more canceled or delayed flights, as well as the elimination of some routes, as there's not enough staff to work the routes. Eliminating certain routes could also make flight prices rise as there are fewer alternatives and could result in more layovers for travelers.
"[A smaller pool of staff] means cutting down on routes in some cases, which could mean focusing on routes out of major cities and airports that are already more expensive," Ramhold says.
There Is a Plane Shortage
In addition to staffing shortages, there are aircraft shortages, as well. Many airlines have not received their full orders for new aircrafts, specifically 737 MAX airplanes, as U.S. manufacturer Boeing has grappled with a supplier quality problem by Spirit AeroSystems, according to Reuters. Both Boeing and Airbus, the two suppliers for passenger jets, are sold out for popular commercial models through 2029, according to Bloomberg.
Financial service firm Jefferies LLC estimates there's currently an order backlog of 12,720 aircrafts, and many airlines are routinely experiencing significant delays with their plane orders. Less available planes for airlines translates into less available flights. It also means that there are older aircrafts in rotation, which likely have more service needs. All in all, part of the reason why flights are so expensive right now is because of multiple shortages in both labor and supplies.
Business Travelers Influence Flight Prices
One of the largest workplace changes that's happened since the start of the pandemic is the rise of remote work. More than 25 percent of jobs in North America are remote, according to Forbes, and surprisingly, that's another reason why flights are so expensive right now. With more people working from home and the rise of video conferencing, less people are traveling for business.
"If there's less business travel going on due to an increase in remote work, then that can be considered a factor in the drop in flight demand overall," Ramhold says. "And a lower demand may mean rising prices, as airlines have to compensate for an increase in operating costs but fewer travelers overall."
While leisure travel has bounced back to pre-pandemic levels, it's unclear if business travel will ever make a full recovery. A Morning Consult report found that there are currently 18 percent fewer employees that travel for business compared to pre-pandemic levels. The decrease of business travelers ultimately leads airlines to increase fares for leisure travelers in order to make up for the lost revenue.
How to Save Money on Airline Tickets While Flights Are Expensive
Consider Basic Economy Fares for Flights
Lately, more and more airlines have been trying to compete against budget airlines by offering a less expensive option with basic economy. Basic economy seats are the cheapest option on many airlines, like United and American Airlines. While their fares are lower, basic economy seats often only allow passengers to bring one personal item, and not a carry-on bag that they could put in the overhead bin, so passengers will have to pack light for their trip if they choose basic economy.
"They are generally lower, but are often unworkable," Lewis says. "Mid- and long-haul flights are being offered with just a small item of hand luggage, think handbag, not even a wheelie bag. For short hops, these fares can make more sense."
Additionally, basic economy typically doesn't allow seat assignments and no changes or cancellations can be made after 24 hours of purchasing a ticket.
READ THIS NEXT: The 7 Biggest Tourist Traps to Avoid in the U.S.
Use Tools Find Cheap Flight Fares
When you're looking for a cheaper fare, you don't have to scroll through multiple tabs comparing each airline. There are plenty of tools online that compare flight prices across destinations and across different airlines.
"Apps like Hopper are especially useful as you can track multiple routes and the app will tell you when to book to get the best price," Ramhold says. "Google Flights is also good for price-tracking and recently rolled out its Google Flights Price Guarantee that will refund the difference in eligible flights if the price drops after you book through Google."
Lewis recommends using Kayak to find flights or flight combinations at the lowest price. Kayak also gives advice when searching on its website as to whether or not it's a good time to buy plane tickets and if fares will drop or increase in the future.
Compare Budget Airlines on Flight Prices to Major Airlines Carefully
When comparing different airlines, it's always tempting to go with a budget airline. Low-cost airlines offer flights at less expensive rates, sometimes at half of the cost of traditional airlines.
Part of the reason that they're able to offer flights for lower prices is because they don't offer features like TV screens or reclining seats. While flight prices may seem cheap, the airlines are still looking to make up the difference and will add additional charges for amenities that are included in the ticket price with other airlines.
"The price up front may look lower, but you may be hit with a lot of fees during the booking process that drives the final price up," Ramhold says. "Budget airlines also often charge for every little thing, too, from carry-ons to in-flight refreshments, which means even if you do end up with a lower fare price overall, you may still end up spending more on your trip because of incidentals."
If you do choose to purchase a flight on a budget airline—like Spirit Airlines, Southwest or JetBlue—be aware of the additional costs that the airline will charge for things like a checked bag, a carry-on bag, or choosing your own seat.
When will prices go down?
While flights may be expensive right now, they're actually on a downward trajectory. Due to the lowered price of jet fuel, flight prices are already starting to go down on domestic trips by nearly 20 percent.
"With higher capacity available from airlines this summer and relief on jet fuel prices, domestic airfares are down nearly 20 percent compared to this time last year," Berg says. "Current domestic airfare is averaging $306 per ticket, down 19 percent from last year."
While that's good news for anyone traveling domestically, it's a different story for flights to Europe or Asia. Berg says that flight prices for trips to the two continents are the highest that they've been "in five years."
How does seasonality affect the price of plane tickets?
Seasonality plays a big role in how expensive a flight could be. There is higher demand for certain destinations at certain times—Hawaii, Mexico, and other tropical destinations are popular destinations in the winter, and Europe is sought-after in the summer. The increased demand for those locations drives flight prices up during those times.
"There are certain places that are top destinations during certain times of year which means airfares will be higher then," Ramhold says.
What are the best days to find cheap flights?
When it comes to booking a cheap flight, it doesn't matter if you purchase your ticket on a Tuesday or a Saturday—prices stay relatively the same price throughout the week. But when it comes to flying, that's where you'll see vast price differences, according to Lewis. It's cheaper to fly in the middle of the week—Tuesday, Wednesday or Thursday—than it is to fly on the weekend. That's one way you can avoid more expensive flights.
"In terms of booking, I've never really seen much difference," Lewis says. "In terms of flying, I always look for mid-week flights."
Although flights during the middle of the week are generally cheaper, Lewis says that it ultimately depends upon the destination.