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Why flights are so expensive right now

Photo illustration by Allison Hong / Los Angeles Times; Getty Images

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“Please pack added patience.”

That was one of the tips offered by David Pekoske, head of the Transportation Security Administration, when he was recently asked about the upcoming summer travel season.

Vacationers face a perfect storm this summer. People are venturing out again, many for their first real summer vacations since 2019, while airlines haven’t replaced all of the staff they lost during the pandemic, leading to delays and cancellations.

Along with high demand for travel, fuel prices are driving up airfares this summer to the highest prices in more than five years, according to Hopper, an online travel site that analyzes prices.

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“It’s going to be very crowded and very expensive,” said Brett Keller, chief executive of the travel website Priceline.

Record diesel prices are slamming consumers in hidden ways. That’s because diesel drives the economy, fueling trucking, agriculture and other major industries.

His advice: Book early, consider flying into smaller, less crowded regional airports and be flexible with the days you plan to travel.

Here are six charts, using travel industry and other data, that help explain why flights are so expensive right now — and why we’re in for a summer travel season of chaos.

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Fuel and salaries are two of the biggest expenses for airlines. Jet fuel prices this summer are roughly double what they were during the last several summers.

And air travel demand is way up: Summer travelers will experience the type of crowds not seen since 2019, before the pandemic and lockdowns squashed travel.

Pekoske, the TSA administrator, said the agency expects more than 3 million travelers will pass through U.S. airports on at least one of the busiest days this summer, surpassing the previous record of 2.8 million a day in 2019.

The result for the average traveler this summer: Fares for flights from June through August are 47% higher than in 2021 and 34% higher than in the same period in 2019.

Hotel prices in April were more than double what they were two years earlier and are expected to remain high throughout the summer.

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The surge in travel demand comes as airlines struggle to bring staffing back to the full employment levels they had before the pandemic. Many former airline workers who were laid off left the industry for jobs with less stress and better pay, industry experts say.

Bad weather and coronavirus outbreaks were to blame for a surge in cancelations in January, and experts say more cancelations are expected during the summer travel season.

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Keller warns that without full staffing, airlines “don’t have as much slack in the ecosystem” to round up replacement pilots, flight attendants or mechanics in the event of a major storm or a mechanical problem that requires extra help.

John Jimenez, a facility maintenance worker in San Jose, was thinking about taking his wife and two children to Phoenix in August to meet his newborn nephew until he calculated the total price for airfares for four people: more than $1,000.

Before the pandemic, he paid about $115 per person for the round trip — about half the current fare.

“I don’t see me spending that much for a quick trip,” he said, adding that driving to Phoenix would also be a pain in the wallet because of steep gas prices.

VIDEO | 05:56
LA Times Today: Why flights are so chaotic and expensive this summer

Watch L.A. Times Today at 7 p.m. on Spectrum News 1 on Channel 1 or live stream on the Spectrum News App. Palos Verdes Peninsula and Orange County viewers can watch on Cox Systems on channel 99.

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