Airlines fares reverse course, climb in March CPI

Airline fares ticked up 0.4 percent in March, ending a three-month downward trend, according to the February Consumer Price Index for All Urban Consumers from the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), U.S. Department of Labor. The rise is in line with the overall CPI, which increased 0.6 percent for the month on a seasonally adjusted basis after rising 0.4 percent in February.



The small-ish increase reversed a three-month trend that saw the index drop of 5.1 percent in February, 3.2 percent in January and 2.3 percent in December 2020. Over the last 12 months, the index has declined 15.1 percent amid the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.

Industry observers as well as frequent flyers know that the CPI's airline fare index does not necessarily reflect the all-in cost of an airline journey. 

Airlines continue to focus on increasing ancillary revenue, which carries an important caveat. While the BLS's calculations of airline fares include an allowance for checked bag fees, the BLS does not include other ancillary charges which represent an ever-larger percentage of airlines' overall revenue.

Although the three major U.S. carriers announced in September 2020 that they would eliminate the fees for changing tickets, other nickel-and-dime charges remain, and the carriers continue in lock step. While American Airlines (NASDAQ:AAL) and Delta Air Lines (NYSE:DAL) quickly followed United's (NYSE:UAL) lead in abolishing change fees last year, in September 2018 AA, Delta, United and jetBlue (NASDAQ:JBLU) all raised fees for checked bags from $25 to $30 for the first bag, and from $35 to $40 for the second. While baggage fees are included, other similar nickel-and-dime charges are not tracked in the airline fare index.

In other areas, the gasoline index continued to increase, rising 9.1 percent in March and accounting for nearly half of the seasonally adjusted increase in the all items index. The natural gas index also rose, contributing to a 5.0-percent increase in the energy index over the month. The food index rose 0.1 percent in March, with the food at home index and the food away from home index both also rising 0.1 percent.

The index for all items less food and energy rose 0.3 percent in March. The shelter index increased in March as did the motor vehicle insurance index, the recreation index, and the household furnishings and operations index. Indexes which decreased over the month include apparel and education.

The all items index rose 2.6 percent for the 12 months ending March, a much larger increase than the 1.7 percent reported for the period ending in February. The index for all items less food and energy rose 1.6 percent over the last 12 months, after increasing 1.3 percent over the 12 month period ending in February. The food index rose 3.5 percent over the last 12 months, while the energy index increased 13.2 percent over that period, the BLS said in its April 13 statement.

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