Robert Brincefield

With the end of school and the summer vacation season about four weeks away, and record high oil prices continuing to track even further upward, this year’s family vacation may take on a new shape for many Americans.

The extraordinary jump in fuel prices is having a particular impact on the costs for airline travel. According to a USA Today report, the Web site Travelocity shows airline fares this summer to eight popular destinations are up by at least 18 percent since last summer. For many families, vacations that may have been within their financial reach in recent years could now become an unaffordable luxury. The newspaper reported that a recent Gallup survey found that 45 percent of air travelers would be less likely to fly this summer if fares are higher.

A collateral effect of higher costs of jet fuel is the curtailing of service to many destinations by the airline companies. Some routes that routinely fly at less than capacity may have to be eliminated. According to statistics released by JetBlue Airline, at current fares for tickets and fuel prices, flights need to be at 85 percent capacity to break even. That means that there will be fewer flights to choose from and they will be at full capacity. Air travel in the U.S. has grown at a rate nearly five times higher than the population since deregulation in 1978. That was when the airlines were able to set their own pricing and routes to travel without government approval and they really started to compete with each other.

In addition to the added inconvenience from fewer daily flights, less non-stop service, fuller planes and the inevitable “over-booking,” travelers may not get their choice of departing and arrival times. The very early morning and late in the evening flights may become the only available and affordable flights.

When we first moved to Texas, our vacation trips to visit family had to be taken on the “Red-Eye” flights. They were all we could afford. We would take a late flight out of D/FW to Atlanta and then change planes and continue on for a very late arrival. It adds to the adventure when you have to coax a family member to hang around an airport at 3 a.m. hoping that your plane is on-time. One gets to share the experience on the return flight as the plane lands. Then the hopes turn to the car starting in the middle of the night after being left for a week at the airport.

Many marketing professionals for tourist destinations are turning their attention to encouraging more intrastate travel to help offset the expected downturn in interstate travelers. However, oil prices may take a toll on automobile travel this summer as well. After peaking at near $120 a barrel last Monday, oil prices moderated some to close at $113.46 on Wednesday. But the analysts like T. Boone Pickens think the price will be over $125 a barrel by the time public school breaks for the summer, and the price is likely headed to $200 a barrel.

According to a report out of Detroit, the softening in sales of trucks and SUVs in recent months, turned into a melt-down during April with sales plummeting 17.4 percent compared to the same month last year. At the same time smaller more fuel efficient automobiles are seeing a healthy rise in sales. That change alone could re-shape the family auto vacation. The familiar stereotype of the family station wagon with the dad driving and the kids in the back fussing with each other and whining “are we there yet” had given way to the electronic equipped modern SUV. In the new family wagons, kids are entertained by watching movies on the over-head monitors while mom and dad enjoy relative peace and quiet in the well-appointed cockpit. Neither is available in the more fuel efficient but much smaller vehicles.

When our daughter was young, our family experienced a similar scenario. The era was during the first oil embargo and we traded down from a pickup equipped to pull a trailer to a Ford Pinto. We made several long multi-week vacation trips over several years in tight quarters, playing games with our daughter to maintain her interest and temperament. Each evening we would stop early for a couple reasons. One was to let her unwind and play, and the second was because we were both road weary. The family vacation this summer may have to be altered somewhat, but should not be canceled. The memories we shared in that Pinto cannot be replaced.

Robert Brincefield is vice president and publisher of the Brownwood Bulletin. His column appears on Sunday. He may be reached by e-mail at bob.brincefield@brownwoodbulletin.com.