(Associated Press file photo)
Southwest's action over the weekend may have ensured success for a price increase by major airlines that seemed to be faltering. Southwest carries more U.S. passengers than any airline and wields great influence over prices.
It's the sixth time airlines have raised fares already this year. FareCompare.com CEO Rick Seaney said leisure travelers may now have to pay $260 for a ticket that cost $200 back on Jan. 1.
The airlines say they need the money.
"Fuel prices are up every week and the fare increases aren't keeping pace with fuel cost increases," Southwest CEO Gary C. Kelly said.
Kelly said Southwest is on pace to spend $1.3 billion more on fuel this year than last year. That's nearly triple the airline's $459 million net income for 2010, or about $15 per customer.
Kelly doesn't think higher fares are driving away customers. Southwest reported Monday that February traffic, measured in miles flown by paying passengers, jumped 13 percent from the same month last year.
Jet fuel prices have risen more than 50 percent in the past year to more than $3 a gallon, although most airlines have offset some of the increase through hedging -- in effect, paying extra to lock in the top price they'll pay for some of their fuel.
The latest price increase started early last week. Delta Air Lines Co. tried to raise many fares by up to $20 per round trip, but other big airlines sided with a $10 increase started by AMR Corp.'s American Airlines.
Southwest waited three days before matching American's move Friday night. Other airlines had rolled back fare increases on routes where they compete with Southwest and other discount carriers, but they revived the full increase once Southwest raised prices too, Seaney said.
Low-cost airlines JetBlue, AirTran and Virgin America also raised prices, virtually assuring that the increase will become permanent, he said.
There were only four broad price increases in all of 2010, and two of those occurred in December. The flurry of fare hikes so far this year mirrors the rapid rise in fares and fuel surcharges in early 2008, when oil prices were heading toward record levels. Oil prices have soared in the past three weeks, approaching $107 a barrel on Monday, because of unrest in the Middle East.
Some airlines have also been dialing back 2011 growth plans because of high oil prices. Frontier Airlines became the latest to do that on Monday. Frontier said its second-quarter capacity would be flat, rather than a planned increase of 1.5 percent to 2.5 percent.
Frontier, a unit of Republic Airways Holdings Inc., said it made the move because of the uncertainty of future oil prices, even though bookings are better than last year.
Delta and American have also said they will scale back their capacity growth plans this year.