We see a lot of stories about the alleged tribulations of air travel. Massive fees, shrinking seat space and even shrinking lavatories all serve as reminders of some long past golden age of air travel. Perk up, there’s a very valid competing reality. Air travel is cheaper and more accessible than it’s ever been.
The average roundtrip flight in 1995 cost $477. That’s over $100 more than what it is today.
Complain all you want about basic economy drudgery; On many routes it’s possible to buy a spacious economy plus or even first class seat for what it cost to fly in the back of the airplane 20 years ago.
The U.S. Bureau of Transportation Statistics (BTS) publishes average domestic fares going back to the mid-1990s. Adjusted for inflation, the average roundtrip domestic airfare was $477 in 1995. Aside from negligible increases in 1999 and 2000, fares have fallen ever since.
☞ average roundtrip fare in 1995 = $477
☞ average roundtrip fare in 2018 = $346
Flying in 2018 is 27 percent cheaper than flying in 1995
For the first quarter of 2018, the average domestic roundtrip airfare was $346, according to data from BTS. That’s 27% cheaper than a flight in 1995 when adjusted for inflation.
U.S. Average 1st Quarter Fares 1995 – 2018
The following chart shows the average roundtrip fare for Q1 (January – March) travel. Fares are adjusted for inflation but do not include ancillary charges like baggage fees, seat upgrades, and change fees.
Inflation-adjusted airfare data from Bureau of Transportation Statistics. Source: BTS.
More seats, more flights, and cheaper fares
American, Delta and United all plan to grow capacity through the end of this year, according to the CAPA Centre for Aviation. Capacity growth is measured by available seat miles (ASM), meaning the total number of seats offered in a given quarter or year.
United is the most aggressive in growth projections at ~5% for 2018. In January 2018, the carrier predicted a 4.0% – 6.0% increase in capacity, but increased costs (mainly fuel), led to a slightly more conservative 4.5% – 5.0% projected ASM growth for the year.
Fuel prices are also increasing
Anyone who has been to the pump lately knows fuel is increasing steadily. Oil now costs two times what it did in 2016. Jet fuel prices are up 38 percent from last year in North America.
IATA report on fuel prices. Image and data by IATA.
Flying is cheaper – but not necessarily for all
Data can obviously be misleading when taken out of context. The average airfare has undoubtedly fallen steadily over the past two decades. Flying is more affordable – on average – thanks in part to growing ultra-low cost presence and fierce competition.
Of course, that does not mean your flight is getting cheaper. New fees, cost-cutting, and award program devaluations are all part of the game to make up for rising fuel costs and downward pressures.
Basic economy fares are just one way airlines have managed to squeeze more revenue out of some of their most frequent customers.