Is the era of cheap airfare ending?

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Actually, there are those who would argue that it's pretty much ended already.

The latest sign that inexpensive airfares are on the wane is that, according to a Wall Street Journal blog post, Ryanair, the leading discount carrier in Europe if not all the world, is raising ticket prices by 12 percent.

Here in the U.S., meanwhile, two of our biggest (so-called) discount carriers, Southwest Airlines and AirTran, have merged, and many observers believe that higher prices will be the ultimate result due to less competition. USA Today noted that even before the two carriers combined, there was "very little or no difference in the prices charged by these airlines vs. those labeled 'legacy airlines.'"

If nothing else, these shifts in the industry are clear signs that it's time to get rid of meaningless phrases like "legacy carriers" and "discount," "low cost," or "upstart" airlines. Southwest has the most domestic flights in the U.S., and Ryanair flies more than 1,000 routes in and around Europe and transports more than 70 million passengers annually. Both airlines are powerful industry players, not feisty upstarts. These days, a flight with a carrier known for cheap fares such as Spirit Airlines can be quite expensive (especially when all the fees are factored in), and considering that JetBlue and AirTran have been flying for more than decade, they don't really qualify as "upstarts" either.

There are exceptions, like the Florida-based Vision Airlines, which is making a name for itself with cheap fares connecting a small selection of second-tier cities. But for the most part, in light of rising fuel surcharges and rising fares even from the so-called "low fare" carriers, travelers can no longer expect to find an abundance of cheap flights as in years gone past.

Nowhere is this clearer than in the international flight market, especially transatlantic travel. "Airfares to Europe are easily the highest I've seen in a decade," Rick Seaney, co-founder of flight search FareCompare, told me recently. Whereas a good-priced round trip in the summer of 2000 from New York to London might total $500, Seaney says, "Nowadays, travelers can expect to pay that much just in taxes and surcharges -- before even factoring in the price of the ticket."


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