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The airline industry has been experiencing economic turbulence over the past two years, most notably when the number of people flying plummeted during the early days of the coronavirus pandemic. According to Transportation Security Administration (TSA) checkpoint reports, April 13, 2020, was the low point, with less than 90,000 screened travelers. By comparison, on Jan. 2, 2022, the number reached more than two million.
The latest ValuePenguin study looks at how airfare prices have fluctuated since before the pandemic. It reveals that airfares plummeted when demand for flying dropped — and they haven’t caught back up at 98 of the nation’s top 100 airports. For instance, the average airfare in the fourth quarter of 2019, the last full pre-COVID-19 period, was $373.34. By the second quarter of 2021, the latest available data, the average ticket cost was just under $300.
Overall, average airfare costs are down 19.7% from pre-pandemic pricing. Find out which airports are offering the best deals.
- Average airfare costs are down 19.7% from before the coronavirus pandemic. In the fourth quarter of 2019, the average cost of a ticket was $373.34. In the second quarter of 2021, the latest available data, the average cost was $299.93.
- Airfare costs have caught up to pre-pandemic levels at just two of the 100 airports with the most passenger volume. Both airports — Kahului Airport and Ellison Onizuka Kona International Airport at Keahole — are in Hawaii. Here, prices are 4.1% and 2.4%, respectively, above pre-crisis levels.
ValuePenguin researchers analyzed data from the U.S. Bureau of Transportation Statistics (BTS) to show how airfares costs have changed amid the pandemic. Airports were ranked by the percentage change in average fares between the fourth quarter of 2019 — the last full quarter before the pandemic — and the second quarter of 2021 — the latest available data. Analysts also looked at the data for the quarters within this period.
Note that all average fares are inflation-adjusted. National figures averages use data from the BTS’ Origin and Destination (O&D) survey. All airport-specific data is based on the origin.
Airline passengers paid almost 20% less for flights in the second quarter of 2021 than they did at the end of 2019, just before the pandemic hit. The least expensive flights were offered in the third quarter of 2020 as airlines tried to lure back travelers who’d been locked down during the early months of the pandemic. Since then, average airfare has slowly been creeping up.
Average airfare costs are calculated based on the U.S. Bureau of Transportation Statistics’ Passenger Origin and Destination (O&D) Survey, which analyzes a 10% sample of all airline tickets for U.S. carriers. Figures are adjusted for inflation and are based on domestic itinerary fees, including taxes and fees (but not optional baggage fees).
While average airfare costs are down 19.7% from before the pandemic, there was a larger 32% price drop between the fourth quarter of 2019 and the third quarter of 2020, the low point for airfares in the period examined.
“During the heart of the pandemic, very few people were getting on a plane to travel,” says Sophia Mendel, ValuePenguin credit cards and travel rewards writer. “As such, it’s unsurprising that airline flight costs plummeted with the lack of demand.”
Besides the fear of travel, challenging restrictions and quarantine protocols deterred people from booking flights. But once vaccinations became widely available by the second quarter of 2021, there was a resurgence of air travel — and an increase in airfares.
“As the pandemic started to calm down and people started to feel comfortable traveling again, airline prices slowly began to rise,” Mendel says.
She predicts that when the rest of the 2021 data is released, it’ll reveal a continuing trend of rising airline prices, driven by an uptick in holiday travel. And, despite new coronavirus variants, Mendel says travel demand (and prices) will likely keep rising in 2022.
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“Fully vaccinated and boosted travelers who take the necessary precautions tend to feel that the risk of contracting COVID-19 while traveling is lower, and are therefore more comfortable flying,” she says.
Airports With Best Pandemic Airfare Deals
The two airports with the biggest decreases in average flight costs from pre-COVID-19 times are offering 30% lower fares. (Note that airport-specific data is based only on departures, not arrivals.)
While these are the only two airports among the 100 largest by 2020 passenger volume where flying out costs 30% less on average, there are 38 others where the cost is 20% to 29% less.
“It adds up that most domestic airports are keeping flight costs low to encourage domestic travel after over two years of airlines struggling to stay afloat,” Mendel says.
Here’s a look at 10 airports with the largest airfare decreases from late 2019 to mid-2021.
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- Location: New York City
- Average fare, Q4 2019: $370.96
- Average fare, Q2 2021: $277.21
- % change: -25.3%
9. Dallas fort worth international
- Location: Dallas
- Average fare, Q4 2019: $420.34
- Average fare, Q2 2021: $313.26
- % change: -25.5%
8. Ted stevens anchorage international
- Location: Anchorage, Alaska
- Average fare, Q4 2019: $518.02
- Average fare, Q2 2021: $385.99
- % change: -25.5%
7. Colorado springs
- Location: Colorado Springs, Colorado
- Average fare, Q4 2019: $407.95
- Average fare, Q2 2021: $303.63
- % change: -25.6%
6. Sarasota bradenton international
- Location: Sarasota,
- Average fare, Q4
- Average fare, Q2 2021: $257.90
- % change: -27.4%
5. Miami international
- Location: Miami
- Average fare, Q4 2019: $339.71
- Average fare, Q2 2021: $246.02
- % change: -27.6%
4. John Wayne airport, orange county
- Location: Santa Ana, California
- Average fare, Q4 2019: $420.56
- Average fare, Q2 2021: $303.56
- % change: -27.8%
3. John f. Kennedy international
- Location: New York City
- Average fare, Q4 2019: $448.33
- Average fare, Q2 2021: $320.25
- % change: -28.6%
2. Pensacola international
- Location: Pensacola,
- Average fare, Q4
- Average fare, Q2
- % change: -30.0%
1. Newark Liberty international
- Location: Newark, New Jersey
- Average fare, Q4 2019: $431.41
- Average fare, Q2 2021: $301.78
- % change: -30.0%
A Closer Look at the Cheapest Airfares
Florida has three airports in the top 10, while New York has two, plus Newark in nearby New Jersey. In terms of actual dollars, the cheapest flights during both periods came out of Miami International, while Ted Stevens Anchorage International in Alaska had the highest average fare.
In general, most airfares hit their low point in the third quarter of 2020. For example, Newark’s average flight then was just $222.86. But in subsequent quarters, prices started climbing again at all but two of the top 100. The biggest percentage jumps since the pandemic lows were:
- 42.0% at New Mexico’s Albuquerque International Sunport
- 38.2% at Wisconsin’s Dane County Regional
- 38.0% at New York’s Greater Rochester International
To learn more about airfare trends during the pandemic, check out the full analysis from ValuePenguin.
How to Find (And Pay For) Cheap Flights
As travel continues to ramp up — not to mention higher fuel prices and flight cancellations due to staff shortages — cheap flights may be harder to come by.
With the right strategies, however, you can still find great deals while maximizing programs that help you pay less out of pocket. Here are a few tactics to try:
- Watch the fine print. “I would recommend always making sure your travel plans are flexible and refundable while we navigate ever-changing pandemic restrictions,” Mendel says. You don’t want to be stuck losing money on a flight if you have to delay your trip to quarantine, for example.
- Track flight prices to score a deal. Because prices can change daily, or even hourly, tools like Google Flights, Expedia and Scott’s Cheap Flights can help you research airfare, Mendel says. “Each of these tools offer a ‘set price alerts’ feature, which will notify you when prices change and can offer insight on the best time to book,” she adds.
- Leverage travel reward credit cards. Mendel encourages travelers to take advantage of travel and airline credit cards to book flights. Not only do these cards often come with travel perks like trip insurance, priority boarding, lounge access or free checked bags, but you can also earn miles to offset the cost of future trips.
- Cash in. If you’ve accumulated miles on an airline credit card or from past flights as an airline loyalty member, apply them to your next flight — you could end up flying for free.
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