LOS ANGELES -- Travelers planning to fly for the Thanksgiving holiday face two helpings of bad news: Ticket prices are expected to be 6 to 12 percent higher than last year, and empty seats will be harder to find.
Because airlines have cut thousands of available seats for the holiday, low-fare airline tickets for the busiest days will go quickly, leaving only high-priced seats or fares for flights several days before or after the holiday.
An estimated 23.2 million Americans are expected to fly during the 12-day period before and after Thanksgiving, a 2 percent decline from last year, according to the Air Transport Association. Airline officials attribute the drop to the weak economy and worries among travelers over stubbornly high unemployment rates.
"Passengers still should expect full flights during the Thanksgiving holiday travel season as airlines have begun to reduce capacity and limit the number of seats available for sale due in part to rising cost pressures," said John Heimlich, chief economist for the trade group.
The higher fares and cuts in airline capacity mean people traveling for Thanksgiving and Christmas will be forced to depart much earlier and return much later after the holidays if they want bargain fares.
Airlines have cut capacity as they struggle with their own financial woes. Airline officials say jet fuel prices have jumped nearly 40 percent over last year, labor costs continue to rise, and there is concern about an Obama administration proposal to increase taxes on airlines.
In the first nine months of the year, airline revenue rose 12.7 percent over the same period last year, Heimlich said. But expenses during the same time jumped 16.1 percent, leaving a profit margin of 0.9 percent. In contrast, the industry enjoyed a 3 percent profit margin in the same period last year.
"The industry's razor-thin profit margin means that airlines are keeping less than one penny in profit for every $1 in revenue," he said.
To boost profit and offset higher costs, airlines have gradually increased fares over the past year.
Six of the nation's largest airlines -- including American, Delta, United and Southwest -- have raised fares nine times this year, each ranging between $4 to $50 a ticket, depending on the distance.
Continental, American, Delta and United are also imposing surcharges of $20 to $40 for the busiest travel days: Nov. 27 and 28; Dec. 22, 23 and 26; and Jan. 2.
Travelocity estimates that the average domestic airfare for the Thanksgiving holiday is $375, up 6 percent over last year.
Expedia estimates that holiday airfares are up 12 percent over last year.
The nation's economic downturn, mergers and fuel prices have forced the nation's airlines to cut capacity 11 percent in the past four years, either by cutting routes or flying smaller planes, according to the airline trade group.
As a result, planes are flying closer to capacity than ever. In July, the most recent month for which federal figures are available, the average domestic plane flew with a record 87 percent of seats filled, according to the U.S. Bureau of Transportation Statistics.
"Most airlines have been chopping seats like crazy, the better to fly full and more profitable planes," said Rick Seaney, founder of the travel website FareCompare.com.
For the Thanksgiving holiday, the nation's airlines have continued to shrink capacity, cutting more than 600,000 seats on domestic flights from Nov. 19 to Nov. 28 compared with the same period in 2010, according to an analysis by FareCompare.com. For the Sunday after Thanksgiving -- one of the busiest travel days of the year -- the airlines cut at least 35,000 seats.