MELVILLE, N.Y. - Three of the four members of the Zambrana family of West Babylon, N.Y., this year won't be making what has become an annual trip upstate to Rochester to visit their mom's friend.
That's because the same factors pushing gasoline prices to new records almost daily are making air travel more expensive, as airlines pour on the fuel surcharges just in time for the summer travel season.
And with most flights still jammed despite a slowing economy, experts said there's no relief in sight for travelers until the fall, when Americans go back to work or school and demand for seats drops.
Rick Seaney, chief executive of Web-based FareCompare in Dallas, said last month that there had been 12 attempts by airlines so far this year to raise fares to cover soaring fuel costs - most of them "successful" because the carriers didn't have to rescind them because of competition. There were 23 attempts last year, Seaney said, a figure that is most likely to be surpassed by year's end.
"It's crazy," he added.
With fuel-related and other fare increases this year, Seaney estimates, travelers probably are paying an average of $100 more for a ticket this month than they would have in January. However, the amount depends on the route's level of competition and whether discounters like Southwest Airlines and JetBlue can keep prices down.
Amy Zambrana, 31, said her husband and two children will stay behind this year when she visits a longtime friend in Rochester next month. The fare will be $240 for her, said Zambrana, a human resources analyst who recalls paying $80 or $90 round-trip from Long Island a couple of years ago. "That was a real shock to me," she said. "I'm going by myself because my family and I can't afford to go."
Seaney advises travelers to book summer trips early to take advantage of any available bargains.
Jeff Stark, 55, of Huntington, N.Y., did just that. But Stark still faced some sticker shock when he heard the price of a 10-day tour to Eastern Europe that he and a companion will take in August: $2,900 per person. Last year, such tours were routinely available for less than $2,000, he said. "I did hesitate," he said of the higher cost. "It was my girlfriend who really wanted to go and, eventually, I sort of caved in."
Darin Lee, an airline consultant and principal in LECG LLC, in Cambridge, Mass., said fuel costs the airlines about the same as gasoline costs consumers: about $3.32 a gallon as of April 15, up from $2.60 at the beginning of this year and $2.07 a year ago.
"All the carriers are in a position where they have to pass through some of that cost to their passengers or they'll be losing tons of money on each passenger they flew," he said.
Fuel now accounts for about a third of most airlines' costs, Lee said. "For every $100 on a ticket, probably $30 is going for fuel," he said.
The Air Transport Association, an airline trade group, says every penny increase per gallon adds $195 million to the major airlines' annual fuel expenses, which the group estimates will total $59.5 billion this year.