Heading home for the Thanksgiving holiday is going to pinch air travelers in more ways than one.
Passengers are paying an average of 6 percent more this year for round-trip flights during the Thanksgiving holiday and cabins will be more crowded than ever as airlines ground planes to reduce costs and keep prices up.
The financial squeeze might be even tighter for some flyers -- 10 to 15 percent more -- as airlines impose new charges and higher fees, according to travel expert Terry Trippler.
"Some baggage charges have been added or increased. Some have increased the amounts for sandwiches and drinks in coach. Some are charging more for certain seats. Some are charging just to select the seats in advance," said Trippler, who runs the travel website theplanerules.com.
Sun Country Airlines hasn't imposed new fees, but Thanksgiving travelers are probably paying about 5 percent more for fares than last year, said spokeswoman Wendy Williams Blackshaw.
Dale Wahlstrom of Plymouth said he paid about $325 to fly his daughter from Manhattan to Minnesota last year. This year, the ticket was just a little under $400, he said. He'll pay even more -- $435 -- to bring his daughter home for Christmas.
"The whole pricing structure for the airlines is so infuriating. It's like pulling a number out of a hat because you never know what you're going to get," Wahlstrom said.
"They have so many different pricing plans, you never know what it's going to cost until you get in line. You ballpark it but you never know until you get in line to buy the ticket."
But as someone who travels for business, Wahlstrom said he wasn't surprised to be paying more to bring his family home for the holidays.
"I'll just take it out of their Christmas presents," he joked.
Many holiday travelers figure the pricier airline tickets may be their only option.
"Some travelers figure by the time we fill up the Navigator and drive across country, meals will cost you more, hotels will cost you more and gas is higher," Trippler said. "The advantage the airlines have is that it's not less expensive to drive."
"What people are telling me is if they want to see grandma, they're still going to but they may not be going to Las Vegas this year," he said.
"They're not taking that extra trip. They went up north this year rather than taking a trip by air. I think a lot of people are looking at this economy and saying you can't count on anything. So if you want to see family or friends, they just do it."
Elbow to elbow
Although some experts forecast a slight drop in the number of air passengers this holiday, don't expect to find many empty seats on the plane.
Capacity cutbacks mean that travelers will find jets about as full as in record-setting 2010, even as the Air Transport Association trade group projects fewer people will fly during the 12-day travel period bracketing the Nov. 24 holiday.
United, Continental Holdings and American Airlines, the three largest U.S. carriers, said available seats would be reduced at least 3 percent this quarter. Delta said its trim would be as much as 5 percent.
"We're taking a lot more aggressive approach" to thin out flights on slower Thanksgiving-week travel days than in 2010, United Chief Revenue Officer Jim Compton told analysts during a conference call last month.
"There will be fewer people milling around in the concourse, but the plane is going to be full because there will be fewer planes," Trippler said.
"It's going to be love thy neighbor holiday weekend because you're probably going to be sitting alongside someone."
Thanksgiving travelers also can look forward to stuffed overhead bins and under-seat storage areas as passengers bring more bags into the cabin to avoid those fees, FareCompare.com CEO Rick Seaney said.
"Sardines would probably be less packed," Seaney said. "People will be carrying everything they can."
Staff writer Wendy Lee and Bloomberg News contributed to this report. Mary Lynn Smith • 612-673-4788
Average price of 2010 fourth quarter for airfare nationwide, according to www.bts.gov
average domestic round-trip, according to travelocity.com
Airline 2010 2011 change
United $698 $816 17%
American $623 $712 14%
Jet Blue $543 $618 14%
Delta $648 $729 13%farecompare.com