Finding a good deal on airfare is becoming harder and harder.
With fuel costs remaining stubbornly high and passenger traffic returning to pre-Sept. 11, 2001, levels, airlines are shifting their focus from cost cutting to revenue raising.
''Overall, fares are up," said Amy Ziff, editor-at-large at Travelocity, the online travel agency.
Terry Trippler, an airline specialist with Cheapseats.com, is forecasting an average 10 percent increase in most leisure fares this year. He expects business fares to rise 4 to 5 percent. ''They've got to raise fares," he said. ''It's the responsible thing to do."
According to Ziff, fares during the high-traffic spring break period between Feb. 26 and March 26 are up an average of 8 percent. International fares are up 10 percent on average.
Ziff said fares to Los Angeles are up 14 percent, prices have increased 11 percent on flights to Boston and San Francisco, 10 percent to New York City, and 7 percent to places like Denver and Orlando and Fort Lauderdale, Fla.
Cancun, still recovering from Hurricane Wilma, is one of the relatively few bargain destinations, Ziff said. She said fares to Cancun are down 6 percent and travel deals in the area are plentiful.
Agencies like Travelocity are pushing travel packages as a way to set themselves apart from competitors. With a package, the agency shaves its profit margin on either the air ticket or the hotel. The agency's margin remains pretty good because the size of each individual sale is higher.
Ziff said Travelocity is offering a package to Cancun from New York's LaGuardia Airport that costs only $180 per person for airfare and seven nights hotel from March 22 through 28.
Airlines have been struggling to survive the last couple of years, with passenger traffic down, competition intense, and the cost of jet fuel unusually high.
But now passenger traffic is returning to levels not seen since the terrorist attacks. According to the federal Bureau of Transportation Statistics, US airlines carried 4.3 percent more domestic passengers through the first 11 months of 2005 than they did in the same period the year before. The airlines carried more passengers even though the number of flights was down by 1,140.
Southwest earned a $548 million profit last year, but JetBlue reported a $42.4 million loss in the fourth quarter and is forecasting a loss for all of 2006.
David Neeleman, chief executive of JetBlue, said the airline needed to generate an increase of $5 to $10 in its average fares. Officials at Southwest said they needed to boost revenues to cover rising fuel costs.
Consumers may not see an actual increase in fares, but it could be harder to find a lower fare. JetBlue has indicated it may adjust the mix of fares on each flight to boost revenue.
Jessica Labrencis, an associate editor at Smarter Living Inc., a Cambridge travel information company, said consumers should probably expect to pay more for airfares. Jet fuel costs remain high, she said, and more planes are flying with more passengers. She said there is little incentive for airlines to offer discounts.
''It's not an ideal situation for travelers," she said.
Contact Bruce Mohl at email@example.com.