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Experts predict higher air fares this year

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. — Airlines were walloped by rising oil prices in 2011, and passengers were forced to fork out more for airfares. Experts say 2012 could hold much of the same.

"We're going to see higher airfares," said Anne Banas, executive editor of SmarterTravel, a Web site for travelers.

But how much higher is a matter of debate.

"Fares are probably going to inch up," said George Hobica, founder of travel Web site AirfareWatchdog.com. He said airlines are cutting the number of seats they fly, and mergers might eliminate competition.

Carlson Wagonlit Travel is forecasting a 3.5 percent to 4.1 percent jump in North American airfares. Other experts say fares could climb higher, partly because of more regulation.

One key might be the cost of fuel. An increase in oil prices early in 2011 helped push fares up 8.5 percent in the second quarter of last year, the latest figure available from the U.S. Department of Transportation.

At least one airline tried to raise fares 22 times last year. The first six came when fuel costs were rising and were adopted industry-wide. Of the next 18, only three succeeded, according to travel Web site FareCompare.com.

Oil is now about $99 a barrel, compared with $113 a barrel at its 2011 peak in April. Here's a look at what else consumers might expect from air travel in 2012:

Consolidation: Besides fewer plane seats, there could be fewer airlines flying if a merger of American Airlines, which recently entered Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection, takes place.

Deals: Even if there's a general increase in prices, good deals will be available, especially during off-peak hours or midweek periods, said Rick Seaney, chief executive officer of FareCompare, recently.

As it becomes harder to shave costs off air travel, people will change their planning processes, Banas predicted. "Cheap deals and what's available will dictate where they travel."

Internet flash sales or limited-run discounts that help airlines and hotels fill empty seats and beds, and "surprise" travel deals will be increasingly popular, she added.

Charge for extras: Comfort, perks and new ways to upgrade will be much discussed in 2012, according to Cheapflights.com.

With more airlines now charging for extra legroom seats or advance seat selections, the cost of air travel will creep up. Still, mini-upgrades like these might appeal to economy fliers seeking premium-class indulgences at minimal costs.

Delta Air Lines plans to add Economy Comfort seats that offer four more inches of legroom and more reclining capacity fleetwide by summer.

The premium economy seat category launched on international flights last year was priced at $80 to $160 extra each way.

Fees: Led by Spirit Airlines, carriers have increasingly used fees to raise revenue even if they hold the line on fares. In 2012, "airlines will think of new ways to raise revenue," Hobica said.

Some already have.

Beginning Jan. 24, Spirit will begin charging customers $5 if they have their boarding pass printed by an airport agent. It will charge $2 for kiosk-printed boarding passes starting June 30.

Regulation: New U.S. Department of Transportation regulations that offer travelers more protections take effect Jan. 24.

Among them are rules that will ban post-purchase price increases, require airlines to disclose baggage fees at point of purchasing a flight, require the same baggage allowances and fees throughout a passenger's journey, and require airlines to give prompt notification of delays of more than 30 minutes.

Another rule, requiring airlines to include all taxes and fees in the advertised fares, will take effect Jan. 26.

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