MONEY Airlines

WOW Indeed! Budget Airline Launches $99 Flights to Europe

WOW Iceland airplane
WOW

A low-fare airline called WOW just introduced new routes between the U.S. and Europe, with fares that are cheaper than what passengers are used to paying just for taxes and fees on transatlantic flights.

WOW Air is a small, low-cost carrier based in Iceland that just made a power move that could disrupt the lucrative—some say absurdly overpriced—transatlantic flight market in a big way. This week, the airline’s U.S. site went live, advertising specials as low as $99 each way, taxes and fees included, on routes between the U.S. and Europe.

Initial transatlantic service connects capital city Reykjavik to Boston-Logan and Baltimore-Washington (BWI) airports. Flights to and from Boston launch in March 2015, and BWI follows in June. WOW offers service from Reykavik-Keflavik onward to London (Gatwick) and Copenhagen as well, so passengers aren’t limited to visiting Iceland.

As of Friday, the lowest fare advertised on the site was for flights from Boston to Reykjavik. Availability is limited at the cheapest prices, but we were able to (theoretically) book a round trip in April 2015 for $246 ($99 going, $147 on the return), all taxes and fees included. For the sake of comparison, a round trip on Icelandair with the same route and dates was running $675 at last check.

Earlier this week the travel blog Jaunted was able to secure an April flight on WOW from Boston to Copenhagen (by way of Reykjavik) for $99, but it looks like such insanely cheap fares are already sold out. Even so, without too much hassle we were able to find flights next spring on the route that are bargains compared to the competition. For instance, you could conceivably book a round trip Boston-Copenhagen flight in May for around $450—roughly half the price of what you’d find for the same itinerary at any major travel search engine.

WOW’s fares from Washington (BWI) to Reykjavik start at $146 each way, while flights from BWI to London are currently being advertised from $195. Even if the cheapest fares sell out quickly, the (higher-priced) seats on WOW that are still available are likely to be much less expensive than flights with major airlines.

As you’d guess, WOW customers don’t get many extras with the rock-bottom prices they’re paying. Passengers must pay for both checked and carryon luggage, and services like food, beverages, and extra legroom are available only to customers who pay above and beyond the base ticket price.

WOW’s venture into the transatlantic market comes a little over a year after another northern European upstart, Norwegian Air, emerged on the scene with sub-$500 flights between the U.S. and Europe. The world’s largest airlines seem to have successfully thwarted Norwegian Air’s plans to expand its transatlantic presence, but the carrier is still flying a handful of U.S.-Europe routes and is still advertising fares far cheaper than any of the industry’s big players—as low as $169 each way between New York-JFK and Oslo and $189 for nonstop flights all the way from Oakland, Calif., to Stockholm, Sweden.

Like WOW, Norwegian Air lists fares with all mandatory taxes and fees included. That—as well as the long-awaited rise of low-cost competitors on transatlantic flights in general—is music to budget travelers’ ears.

Read next: The Secret to Getting a Ridiculously Cheap Thanksgiving Flight

MONEY Airlines

What You Really Need to Know About When to Buy Flights

shape of airplane over calendar
Amanda Rohde—Getty Images

Wait a second, now Sunday is the cheapest day to book airline tickets? Forgive us for being skeptical of this (and every previous) study naming one or another day of the week as the best for buying flights.

This week, the Airline Reporting Corporation (ARC) released a study analyzing roughly 130 million airline tickets booked in the U.S. from January 2013 to July 2014, with the hope of shedding some light on when prices are highest and lowest. Over the years, plenty of these kinds of studies have made the rounds, but the current report differs from the pack in a couple of key ways. It shows:

1) Flight prices are cheaper when booked further in advance. In the past, ARC data has indicated that the lowest domestic flight prices were for tickets purchased 42 days before departure, while other studies have advised travelers to book 49 days in advance for the cheapest fares. The new ARC study shows that, on average, booking 57 days out yields the best prices. What’s more, researchers found that average ticket prices were fairly flat during the window of time 50 to 100 days before departure. In other words, the best bet is to book 50 to 100 days beforehand: Tickets purchased during that period were $85 cheaper than the overall average for all domestic flight prices ($495.55).

2) Weekends are cheaper booking days than weekdays. This is the truly surprising takeaway from the study. According to ARC data, the average price of a domestic flight purchased on a Sunday was $432, and it was slightly higher on Saturday, at $437. For a long time, the consensus advice was that the lowest prices were to be found on flights booked on Tuesdays or Wednesdays (when airlines tend to roll out new flight sales), yet the new study shows the average paid on Tuesday was $497.

The smartest travelers seem to be those who booked flights on a Sunday 50 to 100 days before departure: They paid $110 less for their tickets compared to the average.

High Fares, Record Profits

Why is it that Saturday and Sunday seemingly have replaced Tuesday and Wednesday as the cheapest days for booking? The current mentality of the airline industry—which is less competitive and more profitable than it’s been in years—offers some explanation. As Scott McCartney of the Wall Street Journal noted regarding the shift to weekends: “Airline executives come into work Monday looking to raise fares, not discount them with sales to fill seats.”

Earlier this week, for instance, the country’s largest domestic carriers hiked airfares, a move that would seem to be not only unnecessary but downright greedy considering that fuel prices are plummeting. Given strong demand for air travel and American travelers’ apparent willingness to pay increasingly high prices for flights, airline executives are no longer worried about filling planes with passengers. They’ve moved on to worrying about surpassing their (already record high) profits, and they’re raising fares at every opportunity, for the same reason they’ve relentlessly been adding fees: Because they can.

In any event, the fact that airfares are rising would seem to give travelers even more reason to take notice of studies by the likes of ARC and adopt new booking routines, right? Well, maybe, maybe not. The problem with all of these studies is that they’re generalized and are based on averages from the past. The takeaways they offer may, in fact, not help you save on money your specific flight needs in the future.

Take holiday travel, for instance, when passengers are truly most in need of money-saving advice because prices tend to be so high. In the quest for cheap Thanksgiving airfare, the guidelines mentioned above don’t really apply. Several booking sites point to data indicating that the lowest prices for flights over Thanksgiving weekend are likely to be found two to four weeks before departure—that is, unless you absolutely need to fly on the peak-peak days of the Wednesday before or the Sunday after Thanksgiving. Flights on those days should be purchased far in advance, ideally several months beforehand. In other words, booking a Thanksgiving weekend flight 50 to 100 days ahead of time is probably a bad strategy, no matter what day of the week you’re searching for flights.

What’s more, all “when to buy” advice is based on past performance, as a recent Quartz post on Thanksgiving travel advice painstakingly made clear.

The Trouble With Simple Advice

The WSJ‘s McCartney pointed out that airlines are more inclined lately to discount flights booked on weekends because that’s when leisure travelers are likely to be casually noodling around online and may be enticed to make an impulsive flight purchase if the price is right. The vast majority of business travel, meanwhile, is booked on weekdays, and business travelers are less sensitive to pricing because the flights are deemed more essential. At the same time, however, airlines still do regularly introduce fresh flight sales on Tuesdays and Wednesdays to boost seat purchases on routes that aren’t filling up.

What all of these strategies have in common is that the airlines are reacting to traveler behavior and are lowering or raising prices to maximize revenues. If and when travelers change their behavior again—say, if a critical mass of business travelers suddenly starts booking flights on Sunday rather than Monday—the airlines will tweak their pricing tactics accordingly. All of which is a roundabout way of pointing out that there are far too many complications for simple advice like “book on Sunday” or “book on Tuesday” to be valid across the board. (We’re only talking domestic flights, mind you; booking advice for international flight is more complicated still.)

Probably the only solid time-tested guideline for finding inexpensive flights is this: Booking too early is generally bad, but booking too late is likely worse. The average domestic flight purchased 225 to 300 days before departure cost $500 to $550, per the ARC study, while the average for a ticket on the day of departure was around $650.

How do you find the sweet spot in the middle, when prices are lowest? It’s complicated, dependent on a range of factors including the destination, season, and day of the week you’re traveling; whether there’s a convention or major event where you’re going; and even larger forces like the state of the economy and yep, gas prices. Kayak and Hopper are among the flight search tools that use historical pricing data to try to predict whether fares on a given route will rise or fall, but again, past performance is no guarantee of future results—especially not in recent years, when airline executives have regularly rejiggered their pricing tactics, generally sending fares up, up, and up.

Despite the dizzying amount of tech at traveler’s fingertips, the question of when to book remains largely unanswerable. Yes, it’s wise to hunt during that window 50 to 100 days in advance, and sure, try to remember to poke around for flights especially over the weekends. But be on the lookout on Tuesdays and Wednesday too, because that’s when sales pop up. Consult historical pricing data and airfare price predicting tools, just don’t expect to pay the same bargain-basement fare you got a decade or even one year ago. Pay attention to airfare sale-tracking services like airfarewatchdog, but bear in mind the best deals are often for fluky routes and days and may not work for your travel needs. Perhaps wisest of all, use an airfare tracking service like that of Yapta, which will alert you if and when a flight on your route and dates has reached your desired price threshold. Just try to be realistic with the kind of fare you can expect nowadays.

TIME energy

Why Airfares Are Rising Despite Lower Fuel Costs

Delta Airlines Inc. Terminal Ahead Of Earnings Figures
A Delta Air Lines Inc. airplane departs Ronald Reagan National Airport in Washington, D.C., U.S., on Friday, July 18, 2014. Bloomberg—Bloomberg via Getty Images

Airlines stand to gain when gas costs fall

Airlines’ profits have been, yes, taking off this year, and the industry doesn’t seem inclined to change that flight path. The big carriers announced a $4 per ticket price increase Tuesday, even as falling jet fuel prices were delivering an unbudgeted bonus. Although it’s not unusual for a carrier’s announced price increase to get withdrawn when a competitor decides not to play ball, there doesn’t seem to be much resistance to Tuesday’s news.

Were you expecting the carriers to have mercy on you, given that flights are stuffed, there are upcharges for everything from baggage to overhead space to boarding early, and passengers are staging midair cage fights over knee room? Get real. As one airline consultant told me about a year ago, the semi-romantics who used to run the airlines are long gone. Instead, the folks in charge today play hardball. They are running a business, not their advertising agency’s image of air travel.

With seats in shorter supply domestically, that means pricing is going to remain tight. In Delta’s most recent quarter, for instance, its passenger yield — a measure of the average fare paid — increased 1.9%. The company’s results had Richard Anderson, Delta’s chief executive officer, crowing: “While we have more work ahead of us to achieve our long-term financial goals, we expect a record fourth quarter of 2014 with an operating margin of 10%-12%. For the full year, we expect a pre-tax profit in excess of $4 billion.” That’s following a record year last year.

Delta, like other carriers, is managing costs tighter and benefitting from the slide in oil prices. In its most recent quarter, Delta’s fuel cost declined by $23 million. According to the industry trade group A4A, a penny a gallon decrease over a year saves the carriers $190 million. Delta expects fuel to drop from $2.90 a gallon to between $2.69 and $2.74 a gallon in the current quarter.

Delta notes that there are three major drivers of airline economics: aircraft maintenance, ownership cost and fuel cost. The first two are fairly predictable costs that management has some control over. Fuel is a variable cost with a capital V. When oil was soaring, the airlines were losing billions and eventually were driven into bankruptcy. They have emerged, recapitalized and rationalized: they can make money even with much higher fuel costs. But they can make a lot more money with lower fuel costs as well as by raising prices. There is no reason not to do both. “Domestically, clearly we are in an environment where the carriers are rational, and financially motivated,” American Scott Kirby told analysts recently. ” In other words, don’t expect any free drinks any time soon.

TIME Aviation

Airlines Hike Prices on Domestic Flights

JetBlue initiated the $4 fare increase

The five biggest U.S. airlines all increased their base fare on domestic flights in the past week, despite declining fuel prices and apprehension over the potential spread of Ebola.

JetBlue initiated a $4 fare increase last Thursday, and United, Delta, American and Southwest followed suit, the Associated Press reports.

Though the airlines are trying to boost revenue with an across-the-board price increase, the effect it will have on the average consumer is less clear. Even with a base fare increase, airlines change prices frequently to adjust for evolving demand.

The move comes despite a slip in fuel prices (one of an airline’s largest expenses) and worldwide fear over Ebola. Both factors might seem to give airlines reasons to cut fares.

Wall Street seemed to reward the price increase with shares in the major airlines all gaining by at least 3%.

[AP]

TIME Infectious Disease

How to Get to Monrovia and Back

A Brussels Airlines plane bound for Monrovia at Brussels Airport in Brussels on Aug. 28, 2014.
A Brussels Airlines plane bound for Monrovia at Brussels Airport in Brussels on Aug. 28, 2014. Dominique Faget—AFP/Getty Images

People, and viruses like Ebola, can go anywhere these days

None of the passengers who flew with Ebola Patient Zero from Monrovia, Liberia to Dallas, Texas will have to worry about catching the deadly virus. The patient wasn’t contagious in-flight. Airlines may be called carriers, but airplanes themselves are not particularly good at spreading viral diseases such as Ebola.

What they are good at is transporting people infected with viral diseases from a seemingly far off and remote city such as Monrovia to a big American town such as Dallas. But the global economy has brought cities a lot closer together, and changed disease vectors accordingly.

Need to get to Monrovia? Easy. We can book a trip for you immediately if your passport is handy and you have the visa. There’s a flight leaving JFK in New York City at 5:55 p.m. on Thursday that gets you into Monrovia 21 hours and 25 minutes later. (Relax, Delta passengers; the airline serves Monrovia through Accra from New York, but suspended that connecting service on August 30.) The current itinerary is JFK to BRU to DKR to ROB, airline code for New York to Brussels, where you’ll change planes, then a stop at Dakar, Senegal, before heading to Monrovia’s Roberts International Airport. All that travel takes place aboard Brussels Airlines on wide body Airbus 330s. Indeed, the worst part of the trip may be flying to New York on a commuter jet from Dallas.

You have other options, too: the airline-listing site Kayak offers 1,673 combinations that will get you to Monrovia from New York. Or you can make 574 connections through Chicago. And Open Skies agreements that freed global airlines to fly point-to-point across continents have, as the State Department puts it, “vastly expanded international passenger and cargo flights to and from the United States.”

You can hop an A380 on Emirates Airlines from Dallas to Dubai, change there for a Qatar Air flight to Casablanca and then find a Royal Maroc 737-800 to Monrovia via Freetown. Or fly non-stop to London and then connect via Casablanca or Brussels to Monrovia.

The point is, you can get anywhere from here. And so can the germs.

MONEY Airlines

Holiday Travel Just Got More Annoying Thanks to New Airline Fee

A ground crew member loads baggage onto a Spirit Airlines Inc. plane at the San Diego International Airport in San Diego, California, U.S.
Sam Hodgson—Bloomberg via Getty Images

Spirit Airlines already charges more fees than any other domestic carrier. Now it's adding a surcharge for checked bags on flights around the holidays.

In an industry enraptured with airline fees, Spirit Airlines stands out as the most fee-crazed carrier of all in the U.S., with fees for things others still provides at no additional charge, including carryon luggage, water, and the printing of a boarding pass at the airport. (If you don’t print yours at home, you’re asked to cough up $10 at check-in.) Spirit is also known for being highly profitable, and for being outrageous to get attention—the latest example being the gimmick of giving away free miles to customers who send a message to the airline explaining why they hate it so much.

This past spring, Spirit relaunched its brand to better explain how exactly it does business—low upfront fares combined with a la carte fees for almost anything beyond basic transportation, dubbed the “bare fare”—in order to quell the hate. CEO Ben Baldanza has also gone on record saying that his company may stop adding fees because it’s become difficult to think up any more new ones.

Apparently, however, the creative folks at Spirit have put their heads together and come up yet another fee—or, rather, a fee on top of a fee it already charges. The Los Angeles Times reports that Spirit has quietly tacked on a $2 surcharge on top of its usual checked baggage fees for passengers traveling during the peak winter holiday period, December 18 to January 5. The standard price to check a bag during online check-in is $40 for the first piece of luggage, so if you’re flying during the holiday period, it’ll run $42.

“Winter is coming … and that means holidays. Which means more people than ever will be traveling with Spirit to visit their loved ones,” states a message from Spirit attempting to explain the holiday surcharge. “To make sure we have room for everyone’s bags, we’re encouraging customers to pack a bit lighter.”

It almost sounds as if without such a fee, and without customers packing less, Spirit might have difficulty finding space for all the luggage people want to bring. Which is preposterous. Clearly, the fee is intended to milk passengers for a couple more bucks here and there, at a time when they’re more likely to have to pay up because they’re flying with gifts and bulky winter clothing.

No matter how Spirit tries to spin this, the airline is yet again demonstrating that it’s in love with fees, that it can’t help but push the envelope with the annoying, outrageous, nickel-and-diming of its customers—and that, in all likelihood, it’ll maintain its status as a highly profitable operation regardless.

TIME Transportation

This Is the Busiest Airport in the World

A jet lands at Hartsfield-Jackson International airport in A
A jet lands at Hartsfield-Jackson International airport in Atlanta, Georgia, Thursday July 6, 2007. Chris Rank—Bloomberg / Getty Images

Not even Beijing, London or Tokyo could compete with Atlanta's 94 million passengers

Some 94 million passengers travelled through Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport in 2013, making it the world’s most heavily trafficked airport, according to a new air traffic study released Wednesday.

The findings, released by Airports Council International, show that Altanta, even with a 1.1% dip in traffic, had a 10 million passenger lead ahead of Beijing Capital International Airport, the world’s second-busiest airport.

London Heathrow Airport, Tokyo International Airport and Chicago O’Hare International Airport rounded out third, fourth and fifth places respectively with traffic ranging from 67 to 72 million passengers in 2013.

“Despite this challenging operating climate, worldwide traffic surpassed the 6 billion passenger mark in 2013,” said Angela Gittens, ACI’s Director General. “This represents an enormous feat for the airport industry as we commemorate the 100th anniversary of commercial aviation in 2014.”

Asia-Pacific led regional growth with an 8.7% jump in passengers, followed by the Middle East, home to the world’s fastest-growing airport, Dubai International, with a galloping 15% growth in 2013.

TIME

United Airlines Offers Big Buyouts to Flight Attendants

United Airlines Highlights A 787 Dreamliner
United Airlines flight attendant Tina looks at personal entertainment systems on the new Boeing 787 Dreamliner during a tour of the jet at Los Angeles International Airport on Nov. 30, 2012. Kevork Djansezian—Getty Images

A lump-sum payout worth up to $100,000

United Airlines announced Monday that it will offer its thousands of flight attendants an early and voluntary buyout option, a lump-sum payout worth up to $100,000.

The airline, which employs more than 23,000 flight attendants and was the only major one to announce a quarterly loss this year, is also recalling the 1,450 attendants who were on leave this month so they can apply for the option as well, Bloomberg reports. The bid to downsize comes six years after United announced a large fleet reduction that left it about 2,000 stewards above capacity.

A statement released by the Association of Flight Attendants labeled the program an “unprecedented” and “unique opportunity” for employees who wanted to either rise in the ranks or pursue other opportunities.

“The cost is less to have a flight attendant with less experience versus one that has more,” United spokesperson Megan McCarthy said. The airline would not disclose the criteria needed to earn the maximum buyout but is hoping at least 2,100 employees take advantage of the offer.

TIME Airlines

Massive Flight Cancellations as Air France Pilots Go on Strike

An Air France Airbus A330 aircraft takes off at Charles-de-Gaulle airport
An Air France aircraft takes off at Charles de Gaulle Airport, near Paris, on Sept. 14, 2014 Christian Hartmann—Reuters

Pilots are protesting cost-cutting measures

A weeklong workers strike that began Monday has caused Air France to cancel over half of all its flights, as pilots protest cost-cutting measures.

Six out of 10 flights were canceled, Reuters reports, with similar cancellations expected in the days to come. Pilots are striking to protest the airline’s expansion of its low-cost operations.

Air France announced last week a plan to move much of its operations in Europe to the company’s cheaper subsidiary, Transavia, and base some flights out of foreign countries to save approximately $1.3 billion, the Associated Press reports. Pilots claim the airline is moving jobs outside of France in order to pursue cheaper taxes and cheaper labor.

Another, briefer pilots strike was planned for the German airline Lufthansa but was ultimately called off. Many European carriers have been forced to restructure and adjust their business models as they face competition from cheaper rivals.

[Reuters]

TIME Transportation

Knee Defender Passenger Says He Never Reclines His Seat

Finnair Oyj Becomes First European Airbus A350 Customer
The economy class passenger seating of an Airbus A350 XWB aircraft is seen during a media event by Finnair Oyj at Helsinki-Vantaa airport in Vantaa, Finland, on Wednesday, Aug. 13, 2014. Bloomberg—Bloomberg via Getty Images

He says he's embarrassed by how the altercation ended

An airline passenger who got in a fight over reclining seats and was later booted off his flight says he now feels bad about the altercation.

James Beach was on an August flight in which he used a product called a “Knee Defender” which prevented the seat in front of his from reclining. Beach, who is six feet, one inch tall, told the Associated Press Wednesday that he doesn’t always use the device, but he needed to do some work on his computer during the flight. Beach also said he never reclines his own seat.

After the woman seated in front of Beach figured out he had installed the Knee Defender, preventing her from reclining her own seat, the pair got involved in an altercation. Things got messy, with bad language and tossed beverages. The pilots ultimately diverted the flight to Chicago and removed Beach and the woman from the plane.

“I’m pretty ashamed and embarrassed by what happened. I could have handled it so much better,” Beach told the Associated Press.

Beach says his Knee Defender was a gift from his wife. “I put them in maybe a third of the time. Usually, the person in front tries [to recline] their seat a couple of times, and then they forget about it,” Beach said. “I’d rather just kind of let them think the seat is broken, rather than start a confrontation.”

After getting kicked off his first flight, Beach says he took a Spirit Airlines flight, since the airlines does not use reclining seats.

[AP]

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