Stat: Summer Air Travel to Reach Highest Level in Six Years

The airlines are offering good news for summer travel. Airlines for America (A4A) projects summer 2014 air travel to rise to its highest level in six years, with a record number of passengers traveling internationally on U.S. carriers. Airlines are also more profitable, A4A says.

Approximately 210 million passengers (2.28 million per day) are expected to fly U.S. airlines from June 1 – August 31, up 1.5 percent from 2013, A4A says. This includes 29.9 million travelers (325,000 per day) on international flights – an all-time high. 

Published airline schedules show Canada, Mexico, the United Kingdom, Germany and Japan, respectively, as the top five nonstop destinations from the United States, A4A says.

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“It’s a great time to fly, as air travel remains one of the best consumer bargains in America, given its superior speed and affordability,” said John Heimlich, A4A vice president and chief economist. “U.S. airlines are well prepared to accommodate the increased travel demand in the summer months by adding seats and continuing to make customer-focused investments in their product.”

A4A also said improving airline finances are benefiting customers, employees, investors and the overall U.S. economy.

During the first quarter of 2014, nine publicly traded U.S. passenger carriers collectively reported a Generally Accepted Accounting Principles (GAAP) net profit of $401 million, resulting in a 1.1 percent net profit margin, improved from a collective net loss of $552 million during the same period in 2013.

Operating revenues rose 3.7 percent year-over-year due in large part to a 1.1 percent increase in the number of air travelers, the equivalent of an additional 21,000 passengers per day. Fuel remained the largest and most volatile cost for airlines, accounting for 33 percent of overall operating expenses, A4A said.

Despite entering 2014 with approximately $72 billion of debt and coping with some of the worst winter weather on record, modest financial progress enabled carriers to continue significant levels of reinvestment to further enhance the customer experience, A4A reports.

First-quarter capital expenditures for the nation’s airlines totaled $3 billion, on track to meet the $12 billion in reinvestment expected for the full year.

Advancements include 1,751 new aircraft, of which 255 are scheduled for delivery in 2014 or the equivalent of roughly one aircraft received every weekday of the year.

“The modest margins are enabling airlines to shore up their balance sheets while accelerating reinvestment in people, products and technologies that enhance the overall travel experience,” said Heimlich. “In the first quarter, airlines did a great job meeting the needs of their customers despite facing severe winter weather, including two of the worst aviation weather days ever recorded.”

Heimlich noted that, while U.S. airline finances are steadily improving, the industry still faces significant financial challenges including paying down debt, pursuing investment-grade credit and seeking margins on par with or better than the S&P 500 average.

U.S. passenger airlines’ operational performance remained strong, A4A said, improving markedly from January to February to March as meteorological conditions improved. According to the Department of Transportation (DOT), from January to March U.S. carriers improved the rate of completed flights from 93.46 percent to 98 percent; the on-time arrival rate increased from 67.72 percent to 77.6 percent and the share of passengers having their bags properly handled rose from 99.4 percent to 99.6 percent.

A4A warned, however, that federally imposed taxes on air travel continue to rise. Four decades ago, taxes and fees accounted for less than one tenth of the price of an airline ticket. Today, the amount has skyrocketed to nearly a quarter of the price or $62 on a typical $300 roundtrip domestic ticket. That amount is scheduled to rise again in July to $63 when the Transportation Security Administration’s passenger tax increases to $5.60 on a one-way trip, A4A says.

It could go even higher if other taxes proposed by the Obama administration become law, according to A4A.

"Adding insult to injury, DOT’s Full Fare Advertising Rule enables the government to hide the outsized, ever-increasing amount that airline customers pay in government-imposed levies by burying the charges in the advertised price of a ticket. Since travel is often optional for individual consumers and businesses, even the smallest increase in the total price of a ticket has a negative impact on travel decisions,” said Heimlich. “DOT’s Full Fare Advertising Rule dampens demand for air travel and harms the economic viability of our nation’s travel and tourism industry, which generates over $2 trillion in U.S. economic activity annually, by enabling the government to bury tax hikes in the advertised price of a ticket.”

A4A noted it launched a campaign to Restore Transparency in Airfare Advertising Rules and encouraged customers, airline employees, stakeholders and the general public to visit and send a letter to the Administration and Members of Congress voicing their support for transparent airfares.