TIME Travel

Delta Tops Airline Performance Rankings

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

United ranked last on the annual list

Delta Airlines is the best all around pick for consumer fliers, according to Airfarewatchdog’s annual rankings. While the other legacy carriers, United and American, continue to struggle at the bottom of the list, Delta rose to the top spot from number six last year.

The list uses data on flight cancellations, on-time arrivals, baggage mishandling, denied boardings and customer satisfaction to rank America’s eight largest airlines. United rounded out the list with the lowest overall score, unsurprising given its bottom rank in customer satisfaction and number of denied boardings.

Discount carriers fared well in customer satisfaction scores, but that didn’t translate into high rankings in overall performance. Customers ranked JetBlue first and Southwest second for satisfaction, despite their low scores in flight cancellations and on-time arrivals. JetBlue in particular was hit hard by extreme weather earlier this year at its New York City headquarters and in Boston, where it also has major operations.

MONEY Airlines

WATCH: Why You’re Paying More for Flights

Airfares are rising rapidly and even outpacing the rate of inflation, but the reasons are harder to pin down.

MONEY Saving

Average Airfare Soars Past $500! 5 Tips to Save on Flights

Airplane shadow over farmland
Joe Drivas—Getty Images

Yikes! The average round-trip flight in the U.S. now costs $509. But with a little strategy and savvy planning, the cost of your next flight can be well below average.

According to a new Associated Press analysis, the average price of a round-trip flight within the U.S. for the first half of 2014 was $509.15. That’s around $14 higher than the same period a year ago. What’s more, soaring flight prices have outpaced inflation: Average domestic airfare has risen 10.7% over the past five years, after adjusting for inflation.

The true costs incurred by many airline passengers have been hiked even further than that. As travelers know all too well, fares have been rising at a time when fees for baggage and other basic services have likewise been added and/or increased left and right. In almost all cases, that $500-plus average round-trip flight does not cover the cost of checking a bag, or food, or perhaps even a reserved seat. For any of those services, passengers must often pay extra or utilize other strategies, such as signing up for an airline-affiliated credit card.

No wonder airline stocks have been among the best in the stock market recently, even as oil prices remain high, and the economy and consumer spending have yet to kick into a higher gear.

Unfortunately for travelers, the trajectory of airfare prices isn’t expected to change direction anytime soon. “Airlines have reduced the number of seats while more people want to fly because of the economic recovery. All this leads to higher airfares,” Chuck Thackston, managing director of data and analytics at the Airlines Reporting Corp., told the AP. “This trend in airfares is likely to continue for the near future, as the economy continues to grow.”

While the bargain airfares of the late-’90s are likely gone for good, there are still tactics well worth trying to keep flight costs down. Here are a few.

Shop beyond the usual “low-cost” carriers. In the past, the formula to find a cheap flight was often as simple as doing a quick search at Southwest Airlines’ website. If the low-fare pioneer had service on the route, it probably had a decent fare, if not the absolute lowest available. But as Southwest grew into “America’s largest domestic airline,” prices crept higher, to the point that its identity is not about cheap flights anymore. Studies have shown that Southwest often doesn’t have the best prices on flights. JetBlue doesn’t necessarily have the lowest fares either.

In fact, the title of “low-fare airline” is often misleading. Yet while Southwest and JetBlue may not have the lowest prices on a given route, they generally have more perks included in the base price of a ticket, most notably at least one complimentary checked piece of luggage. If any airline merits the “low-fare” moniker today, it’s Spirit Airlines—which indeed tends to have cheap prices for flights, but which also piles on the fees for almost anything beyond basic transportation.

All of this must be factored into your search for the cheapest fares: You can’t rely on any single airline to have the best price, and you can’t even assume that the least expensive flight will cost you less in the long run. You must shop around extensively for flight prices and add in how much extra you’ll have to pay with the help of an airline fee roundup from Kayak, Expedia, or FareCompare before figuring out the best deal.

Search smartly. Different flight search engines tend to retrieve the exact same prices and options, so stick with the ones you find most intuitive and easiest to use. The editors at Travel & Leisure are fans of Adioso.com for its exceptionally flexible low-price flight search tools and RouteHappy.com for its “Happiness” rating system, which ranks the ease of a given route (number of connections, likelihood of delay, etc.) rather than focusing strictly on price. Hopper.com has also drawn accolades for its combination of flexible searches and data available about pricing history. Somewhere in there, you’ll hopefully find a happy medium with the route and price that works for you.

Be flexible with dates (and maybe even destinations). This piece of advice is a classic because it works year in, year out. Matt Kepnes, author of the Nomadic Matt blog and several money-saving travel books, explained in a TIME post:

A minor tweak in your travel plans can save a bundle, especially if you’re buying tickets for a whole family. Fly midweek instead of on the weekend; fly with stops instead of direct. Small changes can save you hundreds of dollars—multiplied by the number of people traveling. I recommend using airfarewatchdog.com; it sends out alerts when airlines have sales. Two other sources I often use are Kayak’s Explore tool and Google’s flight search, which both allow you to browse the cheapest fares to anywhere in the world from your home airport.

Track flight prices. Airfares can and often do change daily, or even multiple times daily. Instead of conducting searches just as frequently, let a flight-tracking service such as Yapta do the work for you. Plug in your dates, route, and a price threshold, and you’ll be alerted once a fare meets your criteria. You can also keep tracking fares after a flight is booked, to see if and when prices drop so low that you’re entitled to a partial refund.

View airfare-booking guidelines as just that—guidelines. It seems like a new study comes out every few months or so with a rule about when flights should be booked in order to get the best price. You might be instructed to book on a Tuesday, or to book exactly 49 days or 54 days before departure, or to book as far in advance as possible. Could one of these strategies yield the best price on the flight you want? Well, yes, it could.

Then again, it probably won’t. Flight prices change far too often, far too quickly, for far too many reasons for any single rule to hold true across the board. These and other guidelines are nice, but they’re riddled with too many exceptions for them to be truly useful. You’re better off taking such steps as tracking fare prices (see above) and consulting fare predictors like the one offered at Kayak for insight as to when the lowest fare is within your grasp.

MORE: Everything Changes for Southwest Airlines Today

MONEY Airlines

Airline ‘Transparency’ Law One Step Closer to Misleading Passengers

Boy holding paper airplane behind his back
John Lund/Sam Diephuis—Getty Images

A bill that would allow airlines to hide the true cost of flights (fees and all) was just passed by the House

Currently, airlines must include the full price of a flight—including federal taxes and fees—in advertisements. However, a new bill, which was approved by the House of Representatives on Monday, would allow the ads to exclude government fees, allowing for marketing that could fool consumers into thinking their flights will cost significantly less than they’ll actually end up paying.

As MONEY’s Brad Tuttle reported in April, $61 dollars of a typical $300 flight comes from federal taxes–20% of the overall ticket price. Under the new law, airlines could ignore that portion of the fare and advertise the same flight at $239. Could anyone actually buy that flight for $239? Of course not.

Regulations passed in 2012 outlawed this type of misdirection, but the airlines are now one step away from bringing it back.

The bill’s advocates argue that letting airlines advertise their unmodified prices would show consumers how much the government is adding to their travel bill. When the law was first proposed in the spring, supporters said it would “restore transparency to the advertising of U.S. airline ticket prices, and ensure that airfare ads are not forced to hide the costs of government from consumers.”

Knowing about government-added expenses is all well and good, but consumer advocates believe the law will do more to confuse flyers than educate them. The National Consumers League says the bill doesn’t provide transparency, and merely allows the airlines to advertise eye-grabbing but deceptive lower prices in order to win more business. In this way, the “Transparent Airlines Act” actually makes what consumers must pay for flights more opaque. That’s the opposite of transparency.

The Transparent Airlines Act still needs to pass the Senate before it becomes a law, and its opponents aren’t going to give up without a fight.

“Our organization, together with other consumer groups, will work closely with Senate staff to stop the passage of a companion bill,” said Charlie Leocha, Chairman of Travelers United, a consumer protection organization focused on travelers. “Even though the name of the bill contains the word ‘transparency,’ the effect of this legislation would be anything but.”

TIME Israel

FAA Extends Israel Flight Ban Another 24 Hours

Cancelled fights shown on a departure board in Ben Gurion Airport in Lod, just outside Tel Aviv, Israel on July 23, 2014.
Cancelled fights shown on a departure board in Ben Gurion Airport in Lod, just outside Tel Aviv, Israel on July 23, 2014. Jim Hollander—EPA

The FAA renewed its flight ban a day after a rocket struck near Tel Aviv's airport

The Federal Aviation Administration on Wednesday extended its ban prohibiting U.S. airlines from flying to and from Israel’s main airport for another 24 hours. The renewed ban comes amid escalating violence between Israel and Islamist groups in the Gaza Strip, particularly Hamas.

The announcement came a day after a rocket launched from the Gaza Strip struck about a mile from Tel Aviv’s Ben Gurion International Airport. In response to the rocket attack, the FAA stopped all U.S. air travel in and out of the city. Just hours before the announcement, Delta Airlines and United Airlines said they were voluntarily and indefinitely suspending Israel flights. Several major European air carriers, over which the FAA holds no authority, have also voluntarily stopped flying to Israel.

“Due to the potentially hazardous situation created by the armed conflict in Israel and Gaza, all flight operations to/from Ben Gurion International Airport (llbg) by U.S. operators are prohibited for up to 24 hours,” the FAA said Wednesday in its renewed ban.

The FAA’s renewal of the ban came despite Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s plea to U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry that the FAA reverse it. The State Department said Tuesday it was not involved in the FAA’s decision to implement the ban.

The U.S. State Department issued travel warnings for Israel, the West Bank and the Gaza Strip Monday.

Zeke J. Miller contributed reporting.

MONEY stocks

What Airline Stocks Tell Us About the Rest of the Market

airplane window view above the clouds
Getty Images

A century-old market timing strategy known as Dow Theory views the rally in airline stocks as a bullish sign, but investors need to approach the transportation sector with skepticism.

High oil prices. Fee-weary passengers. A global economy that’s still not firing on all cylinders. And geopolitical crises forcing carriers to re-route their flights.

Given these recent developments, you’d think that airlines stocks would be struggling of late.

But you’d be wrong. Airline stocks have been among the best performing groups in the U.S. stock market recently, with the Dow Jones U.S. airline index up nearly 75% over the past 12 months.

^DJUSAR Chart

^DJUSAR data by YCharts

In the short run, this trend is likely to continue, especially if airlines keep posting strong results. On Tuesday, Delta Airlines DELTA AIR LINES INC. DAL -1.5054% reported that revenue grew more than 9% in the recently ended quarter, versus the same period last year. The carrier also reported earnings per share of $1.04, versus consensus forecasts of around $1.02 a share.

But what of the long run?

One of the most enduring market-timing strategies on Wall Street would seem to point to blue skies ahead—and not just for airline and transportation stocks.

Dow Theory, the brainchild of Charles Dow, the founder of The Wall Street Journal, is one of the oldest technical indicators that’s still used by investors to gauge future stock market movements. Dow Theory has many technical layers, but in broad strokes the strategy seeks to verify trends in the Dow Jones Industrial Average by looking at the Dow Jones Transportation Average.

The idea is that stocks tend to rise when the economy is humming. And to tell if that’s the case, you need to see not only that factories are on the upswing (as measured by the Dow Industrials), but that transportation companies that are paid to move manufactured goods out of those factories are also on a roll. Hence the need to study the Dow Transports.

Recently, the airlines haven’t been the only transports rallying. Shares of railroads and trucking-related companies have also been on the rise:

^DJUSAR Chart

^DJUSAR data by YCharts

This explains why both the Dow Industrials and Dow Transports are at or really close to their all-time highs:

^DJT Chart

^DJT data by YCharts

Still, it’s important to understand that transport stocks have been soaring for more than five years now, as investors have been anticipating an improved economy ever since 2009.

The result is the bull market in transportation is getting long in the tooth. Meanwhile, valuations for many of these companies, including the airlines, are soaring.

As you can see below, while the broad market trades at a price/earnings ratio of around 17 or 18, many airline stocks — such as Southwest SOUTHWEST AIRLINES CO. LUV -1.0453% , United Continental UNITED CONTINENTAL HLDG. UAL -2.5178% , JetBlue JETBLUE AIRWAYS JBLU -2.0424% , and Spirit SPIRIT AIRLINES INC. SAVE -1.1264% — trade at significantly higher P/E ratios.

LUV PE Ratio (TTM) Chart

LUV PE Ratio (TTM) data by YCharts

The bottom line: This may be a time when it makes more sense to look at the fundamentals of each individual company, rather than at the technical trends for the airlines or transports as a whole.

TIME Israel

Birthright Youth Trips Continue As Israel-Gaza Conflict Rages On

There are currently nearly 2,500 youths traveling on Birthright

Updated 6:08 p.m. ET July 22,2014

As airlines around the world are canceling flights to Israel in light of a rocket attack near the country’s main international airport, the Birthright Israel program is carrying on with its mission of sending Jewish youth on free ten-day trips to the country.

Still, nearly a third of people scheduled to join upcoming trips have cancelled their plans since the conflict in Gaza has escalated, according to the organization. Some 2,600 people are currently in Israel on Birthright trips, according to the group, and more than 22,000 have participated over the course of the summer. Only 10 participants have returned early during the past few weeks, though some who recently came back from trips say they would have been unlikely to go given the current environment.

“There would be no way I would want to go on a trip now,” says Heather Paley, who returned to the U.S. from a Birthright trip just as the conflict began to intensify. “It’s a really small country, and I realized when they mentioned places that were being attacked, I was at those places.”

More than 600 people have died in the fighting as of Tuesday, Reuters reports, the vast majority of them Palestinian. One of the Israeli soldiers killed in the conflict was Max Steinberg, a Los Angeles native who enlisted in the Israeli Defense Forces after visiting the country on a Birthright trip.

A Birthright spokesperson, Pamela Fertel Weinstein, says the organization is monitoring the situation in coordination with the Israel Ministry of Education, the Israeli Defense Forces, and other law enforcement organizations. She says that Birthright has maintained a strong safety record as conflicts involving Israel have ebbed and flowed, which she attributed to being “cautious and conservative.”

For all travelers in Israel, including Birthright participants, the cancellations of flights to by American and European carriers may hinder their ability to leave the country. On July 22, the Federal Aviation Administration banned U.S. airlines from flying to Israel for a 24-hour period, and the order could be extended. Several European carriers have cancelled their flights as well. Nonetheless, Weinstein says that the program works with a variety of airlines and hotels to ensure that nobody is left without assistance and lodging in the event of cancellations or delays.

Other tourists are left up to their own devices. Julia May, who cut short a three-week educational program to Israel this month after seeing rockets from the beach, says she was torn between the opposing perspectives of her American friends who thought she was “crazy” to stay in the country and the positive mindset in Israel.

“Even when you’re just a visitor you get this mentality ‘yeah, I can stay through this,'” she says. “But even if you feel safe, you know you’re still in a war zone.”

MONEY Airlines

The New TSA Fee Should Change the Way You Book Flights

An airline passenger is patted down by a Transportation Security Administration (TSA) agent
An airline passenger is patted down by a Transportation Security Administration (TSA) agent at Los Angeles International Airport. Kevork Djansezian—Reuters

Airline passengers used to pay as little as $5 round trip in TSA fees. Now everybody pays $11.20, and you could be forced to cough up double that.

As of July 21, the TSA’s September 11 Security Fee structure has been changed, and all travelers flying within the U.S. will be paying more every time a flight is purchased. Passengers on nonstop flights must now pay $5.60 each way, up from $2.50, so therefore the TSA fee on a basic round trip consisting of two nonstop flights is $11.20, up from $5. Unfortunately, there’s no getting around that fee hike, which amounts to a 124% increase. The fees are automatically tacked onto the price of airfare.

In the past, fliers on nonstops paid less in fees than travelers on connecting flights: $5 for a round trip, versus $10. Now everybody pays $11.20, regardless of connections. So in addition to nonstop flights being superior in terms of saving time and avoiding possible delays and missed connections, there was the added bonus of saving a few bucks on the TSA fees.

Now that little bonus is gone.

Even so, it’s almost always still best to go with a nonstop, if possible. Sure, delays and technical troubles can happen on nonstops, but travelers are far more likely to encounter such hassles on connecting flights. With recent airline mergers, carriers have slowly been getting rid of the old hub-and-spoke systems at the same time they’ve been trimming back the overall number of flights. As a result, passengers are generally more likely to find nonstop flights to their destination of choice and more likely to run into extra trouble on connecting flights. (It’s less likely there will be another flight behind the one you missed, and even if there is it probably doesn’t have enough extra seats.)

By going nonstop, passengers also rule out the risk of being forced to pay extra TSA fees on connecting flights with unusually long layovers. In the past, budget travel experts sometimes recommended looking into flights with extra-long layovers as a tactic for saving money. The new TSA fee structure makes that strategy a little less worth the hassle. Now, if a connecting flight has a layover of four or more hours, fliers must pay $5.60 for each leg of the journey. So for a flight from, say, Providence to Los Angeles with a five-hour layover in Dallas, a passenger would pay $11.20 in TSA fees, as opposed to $5.60 to a passenger booked on a nonstop or on a connecting flight with a more reasonable layover wait.

Airfarewatchdog.com founder George Hobica gave the Arizona Republic an example of a recent flight deal that would be affected: $197 for a winter season round trip from Newark to a choice of destinations in the Caribbean. “The catch,” the article explained, is that “travelers had to stay overnight in Miami in both directions.” So their layover would obviously be more than four hours—so they’d get hit with double the usual fees.

Fliers booking multi-stop itineraries—usually for business purposes, but not necessarily—will also feel the impact of the new fee structure more so than others, as they’ll have to pay at least $5.60 for each leg of the journey, rather than as little as $2.50 in the past. Depending on the traveler, number of stops on the itinerary, and the reason for the trip, this might not necessarily be a deal breaker. But it absolutely should factor into the decision making process.

TIME celebrities

Orange Co-Star Jason Biggs Apologizes for Malaysia Crash Tweets

Cast member Jason Biggs attends the season two premiere of "Orange is the New Black" in New York
Cast member Jason Biggs attends the season two premiere of "Orange is the New Black" in New York on May 15, 2014. Biggs sparked public outrage after a series of controversial Twitter posts about Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 shortly after it crashed. Eric Thayer—Reuters

The actor who sparked public outrage months ago about flight MH370 has done it again — this time about MH17

A series of tweets by actor Jason Biggs on Malaysia Airlines Flight 17, which was reportedly shot down by a missile in a part of eastern Ukraine controlled by pro-Russian separatists, has caused outrage on social media.

Biggs, who stars in Orange Is the New Black, wrote in a tweet that has since been deleted, “Anyone wanna buy my Malaysian Airlines frequent flier miles?”

While some saw nothing wrong in making what appeared to be a dark joke in response to grim news, many of his nearly 450,000 followers considered the tweet offensive.

Biggs initially responded to critics with a series of profane tweets accusing them of being overly sensitive, “You don’t have to think it’s funny, or even be on my twitter page at all,” he said.

However, he later deleted his initial tweets and offered an apology to his fans, “People were offended, and that was not my intent. Sorry to those of you that were,” Biggs wrote. “This is obviously a horrible tragedy, and everyone — including myself — is sad and angry about it. Sending positive thoughts to the victims and their families.”

The actor, who is best known for his role in the American Pie films, is no stranger to tweeting controversial remarks. In the days following the disappearance of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 in March, Biggs also triggered outrage with a reference to the missing plane in a tweet about the U.S. reality-TV show The Bachelor.

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