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Airfares at BWI still low

The cost of airline tickets continued to climb in the spring, but airfare at Baltimore-Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport remained among the cheapest in the country, according to figures released Monday.

Airlines trimmed flights from their schedules during April, May and June and more travelers returned to the skies, leading to the fourth straight quarter of increases to ticket prices after the recession caused airfare to slump.

“It’s a case of business travel demand particularly being strong, and capacity overall being constrained,” said Robert Mann, a Long Island-based airline consultant and former industry executive. “It’s a continuation of the previous quarters, and everything suggests that going into the end of the year that that will continue.”

Flights from BWI averaged $289 during the second quarter, up $12 from the three months before, and $35 from the second quarter of 2009, according to the U.S. Bureau of Transportation Statistics.

The average ticket price among the country’s top 100 airports was $341 after taxes but before add-ons like baggage fees, a 13-percent increase over the corresponding quarter last year.

BWI’s closest competitors all posted higher prices — Philadelphia International Airport averaged $347; Reagan National Airport, $382; and Dulles International Airport, $424.

“If you look locally, BWI had a very strong, record-breaking summer in terms of passenger traffic,” said airport spokesman Jonathan Dean. “BWI has a long-standing reputation as a low-cost gateway. That’s confirmed with this report.”

Indeed, Southwest Airlines Co. and AirTran Airways posted record passenger numbers during the summer and added flights. Southwest, which announced in September it would buy AirTran, would account for 70 percent of the passengers that fly through BWI if the deal goes through.

The presence of those low-fare carriers and new arrival JetBlue, which began flying from BWI in September 2009, have helped suppress prices at BWI, Dean said.

Airlines began cutting capacity in early 2008 as the recession cut into ticket sales, and mergers of Delta and Northwest, and United and Continental have led to leaner companies offering fewer seats to passengers, analysts said.

“Once you start to reduce the number of seats in the market, then you have the opportunity to improve your average prices,” said John Pincavage, of Pincavage & Associates in Connecticut. “That’s what’s been going on. Most of the competitors have adhered to not increasing their capacity much.”

Two exceptions have been JetBlue and Southwest, both of which announced they would add flights this year.

Pincavage said many expect the airlines’ recovery, and the higher ticket prices that come with it, to continue at least through the rest of the year. But several different factors could derail the trend, or accelerate it.

Pincavage pointed to the price of crude oil, where increases could push the cost of air travel up; Mann pointed to acts of terrorism. Foreign officials found a pair of bombs destined for the Chicago area last week.

The industry is “stronger, but as we saw from Friday’s events we’re only one adverse, unfortunate event away from a big impact on the industry,” Mann said.