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Fuel surcharges on plane tickets soar. How long will it last?

Fuel surcharges send the price of plane tickets higher, but lax demand may counter hikes.

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In this April 15, 2008 file photo a Northwest plane is seen parked as travelers wait for their flight at Detroit Metropolitan Airport in Detroit.

Kiichiro Sato/AP Photo, file

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Airlines call it a "fuel surcharge," but the rest of us call it a price hike.

That's the top story behind airfares this year: Ticket prices are higher in 2011, and the cost of jet fuel is a big reason.

But that doesn't mean travelers won't find bargains, or that the price of oil is the only thing that has pushed airfares upward. Here's the big picture:

First, the fuel surcharges airlines are tacking on are huge – as much as $500 per round-trip ticket on some long-distance routes. These fees aren't new, but they've skyrocketed just in the past few months.

Second, fares for travel this summer are typically higher than they were last year. Yet ticket prices still depend on airlines competing to see what consumers will pay, so there is some pressure to hold fares down.

An example: During the week of May 15, airfares for a June flight from New York to Rome dropped to $839 round trip, roughly 40 percent lower than the prices seen for that same June flight as of January, which started at $1,399, says travel expert Tom Parsons. That occurred even though the fuel surcharge for that flight had jumped by $80 during that time, to a total of about $420.

This doesn't mean the same kinds of deals will abound for peak-season flights in July or August, says Mr. Parsons, chief executive of the travel website BestFares.com. But it shows that, despite the big fuel surcharges, ticket prices can move in more than one direction.

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