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Why are air fares rising – and should I book my summer holiday flight now?

Delays in Boeing aircraft deliveries because of safety concerns are combining with an issue affecting some Airbus engines to cut the number of flights

Simon Calder
Travel Correspondent
Tuesday 27 February 2024 06:59 GMT
Blue sky thinking? Wizz Air Airbus A321 at London Gatwick airport
Blue sky thinking? Wizz Air Airbus A321 at London Gatwick airport (Simon Calder)

Could your holiday flight cost more because of an inflight scare and a problem with contaminated “powder metal”?

Delays in Boeing aircraft deliveries because of safety concerns, combined with an issue affecting some Airbus engines, means some airlines are struggling to fulfil their planned operations.

That could mean air fares in Europe will rise by as much as 10 per cent, according to the boss of Europe’s biggest budget airline. 

So should travellers book their summer flights now to avoid further fare hikes? Or could they find their planned flights cancelled?

These are the key questions and answers.

Since Covid travel restrictions were lifted across most of the world, what has happened in terms of flying and fares?

Going back to March 2022: after the last requirements for Covid testing and quarantine were lifted in the UK, there was a huge surge in demand for flights as people sought to make up for lost family trips, beach holidays and city breaks.

The airline industry has been struggling to keep pace with demand – and at the same time carriers have been putting up fares to take advantage of the limited supply of seats. Fares went up by an average of one-sixth on Ryanair last summer – and many of us will have paid an awful lot more, typically 50 per cent up on pre-pandemic fares.

Are things getting back on an even keel this year?

No. According to the latest Eurocontrol figures on flights handled across Europe, air traffic was eight per cent down on the same spell before the pandemic. In February and early March that’s not too much of a problem, because demand for travel is fairly weak – but from Easter onwards the pendulum swings in favour of the airlines, with more of us wanting to fly.

Problems facing the two big planemakers, Airbus and Boeing, mean that airlines won’t have enough short-haul aircraft to operate all the flights they were hoping. Which means higher fares as well as less choice.

What are the planemakers’ problems?

These concern the most popular aircraft for European flights: the Boeing 737 and the Airbus A320 family.

Boeing has been unable to increase the rate of deliveries of 737 Max aircraft following an inflight scare in January, when a door plug blew out from the fuselage of an Alaska Airlines Boeing 737 Max 9 shortly after take-off from Portland, Oregon.

The aircraft landed safely, but quality-control concerns have led to the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to demand close supervision of each aircraft. The FAA administrator, Mike, Whitaker said. “We will not agree to any request from Boeing for an expansion in production or approve additional production lines for the 737 Max until we are satisfied that the quality control issues uncovered during this process are resolved.”

Some Airbus users are also facing problems with Pratt & Whitney GTF (geared turbofan) engines. The engine maker has identified a potential problem of contamination in the powder metal used for some key components. As a result, the engines must be inspected earlier, with the power plants removed, disassembled, examined and put back together by specialist teams. That could take two months for each engine.

This means that Wizz Air and the German airline Lufthansa are likely to have to ground dozens of aircraft for long spells this year. 

Why should passengers be penalised for manufacturing issues?

Bluntly, because airlines will charge whatever they can get away with – more enthusiastically than ever as they try to make up for the billions they lost during Covid. And with lots of money chasing fewer seats, they can cash in like never before on what the market will bear. It’s supply and demand at its most extreme.

There are some bargains around right now: on Thursday 7 March, for example, you can fly 1,200 miles from London to Tirana in Albania for £15 or less. But in summer that all changes and fares are off the scale – with one Manchester-Malaga flight on Saturday 20 July going for almost £500 one way.

Even though British Airways, easyJet and Jet2 aren’t at all affected by the delivery and maintenance problems, they are benefitting from the overall rise in fares.

Could flights that people have already booked be cancelled?

They already are being. Wizz Air has cancelled entire routes such as London Luton-Dubrovnik for the summer, while other flights are being filleted: I have a Wizz Air flight booked to Sarajevo in April that has been cancelled, with an alternative offered two days later. And Michael O'Leary says that Ryanair is likely to cancel flights on routes with multiple daily frequencies. For example, Ryanair has up to six departures a day from Edinburgh to Dublin, and one of those could be trimmed with the passengers moved to the earlier or later flight. But that pushes up fares on the remaining seats.

I haven’t yet booked my summer flights – should I do so now?

Probably. It’s difficult to see where any new capacity could come from – there’s a worldwide shortage of planes. There’s a risk that a flight you book could be cancelled, but fortunately European air passengers’ rights rules are on your side if that happens: the UK Civil Aviation Authority says that airlines cancelling flights must get you to your destination on the same day if at all possible, even if it means buying a ticket on another carrier.

Will fares start coming down from next summer?

Not necessarily. Air New Zealand, which says it might have to ground a quarter of its fleet of 17 Airbus aircraft, says the issue could impact services for up to two years. And Boeing is not yet able to deliver planes at the required pace. Some planes could be kept in service longer than planned, but overall demand for aircraft exceeds supply – just as passengers’ demand for travel is outstripping the supply of seats.

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