Flying home for the holiday? Prepare to pay

By Elly Cosgrove and Alec Gustafson

Looking for a cheap flight to grandma’s house for Thanksgiving? It might be too late.

According to Expedia, a round trip, non-stop ticket from Richmond to Chicago’s O’Hare Airport on the Wednesday before Thanksgiving now sells for about $450. The same trip costs $265 if you’re departing on a Wednesday in January.

Airlines for America, a trade group, projects 28.5 million passengers will travel on U.S. airlines over this year’s 12-day Thanksgiving travel period. That’s up three percent from 2016. Besides, Virginia airports serve more than 80 public and private colleges and universities, adding more traffic to the usual family and business travelers.

An American Airlines Airbus A319 is parked at a gate at Miami International Airport, Monday, Nov. 6, 2017, in Miami. American is one of three major airlines to serve Roanoke. (AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee)

“The airlines know when you’re getting out of school,” said Bradley Boettcher, Roanoke-Blacksburg Regional Airport (ROA) director of marketing and air service development. “They know when you’re going back to school and they price things accordingly, which can be a challenge as far as you know they are trying to make as much as they can. On your side as a consumer, you’re trying to get the best possible deal.”

He advises all to buy tickets 90 days in advance, if possible. As director of marketing and air service development at ROA, Boettcher works closely with different air carriers to get more flights and destinations for the airport, as well as fares that are in line with other airports in the region such as Charlottesville-Albemarle (CHO) and Richmond International (RIC). This includes securing more seats in the market to drive down prices around the holidays.

“Capacity is a big thing for us where we want the largest aircraft to come in because the more seats you have on a plane, the more lower fares you’re going to have available, so that has a nice effect of driving prices down,” he said.

Boettcher remarks that it is difficult to compete with other airports in the region for resources when four airlines, Delta, Southwest, American and United, dominate 85 percent of the market. This makes it difficult for smaller airports like ROA to secure more seats.

When Boettcher joined the ROA team two years ago, their passenger traffic had been declining on an annual basis since 2011. This past year, ROA has finally been able to flip the script and show airlines a story of growth.

“What we have to do is try and get people to use the airport and people have been doing it over the last year,” he said. “We’ve seen our traffic increase every month on a year over year basis which is good.”

This increase of traffic at ROA leads to airlines offering more flights out of the airport, which ultimately leads to more seats and cheaper holiday airfare for nearby Virginia travelers.

Margaret Higgins, a Lexington local and part-time Washington and Lee employee, worked for several different airlines for 16 years. Over the course of her career, Higgins was located at airports in both Detroit and Roanoke; she worked various jobs including travel agent, flight attendant, American Airlines call center agent and ROA Northwest supervisor.

Higgins said that through the years, she heard many passenger complaints about expensive airfare around the holidays.

“You just tell them that you know basically we don’t set the prices we have our ticket agency that does that,” she said. “What people don’t understand is that you could pay $1,000 for your ticket and the person beside you got theirs six months before you and only paid 300.”

Higgins said that the holidays not only bring an increase of TSA screeners to make security more efficient, but also a hectic atmosphere.

“They overbook, which all airlines do, and if everybody shows up, then you’ve got to beg them to get off—but it’s very hectic, airports get very busy,” she said.

Former Navy, Air Force and commercial pilot Matthew Miggins said that he would try to avoid these hectic travel days altogether.

“Back when I was making my schedule, I would always try to avoid flying those days because you’re dealing with crowded airports, crowded runways and crowded taxiways,” he said.

Miggins remembers the increased sense of urgency among his fellow crew as they focused on getting families home in time for their turkey.

“We definitely had help from extra crew, but that’s what happens when you have to perform your best under these special situations,” he said. “At the end of the day, safety is our number one priority,” which is something we can all be thankful for this holiday season.