WASHINGTON — Higher airfares are "inevitable" this summer to help airlines absorb soaring fuel costs, the head of the trade association that represents the nation's leading air carriers predicted Tuesday.
James C. May, the president and chief executive officer of the Air Transport Association, declined to speculate on the size of fare increases, but he said that rising ticket prices are unavoidable as airlines struggle with unprecedented increases in the cost of fuel.
Jet fuel prices, he said, are approaching $170 a barrel, which he called "absolutely uncharted territory."
As airlines prepare for the summer travel season, May's organization predicted that there will more than 2 million fewer passengers this summer compared with the same period last year.
Approximately 211.5 million passengers are expected to fly from June 1 through Aug. 31, compared with 214.2 million passengers during the same period in 2007. May attributed the drop to a weakening economy, higher fuel costs and cuts in airline capacity, but he said that, even so, planes would be relatively full.
May and Greg Principato, president of Airports Council International-North America, said the nation's airlines and airports are working in tandem to deal with delays and other problems that they said could make for a "a challenging summer."
Principato said that airports across the country are developing emergency plans to help stranded or delayed passengers.
Measures include keeping at least one food vendor open around the clock and distributing cots, sleeping mats and blankets to passengers forced to spend the night, he said.
May said airlines are working the Federal Aviation Administration to stem congestion in the New York-Philadelphia corridor, blamed for many of the delays nationwide.
Although weather is generally the biggest factor in delays, thousands of passengers were stranded in recent weeks when American Airlines and several other carriers were forced to ground flights to make repairs mandated by the FAA.
"We hate delays," said May. "We want to do everything we can to cure them."
With fuel at record prices, May said, delays are expected to cost airlines at least $10 billion this year. He said that commercial carriers are looking at ways to save fuel, including slowing down planes in flight "a little bit" to increase fuel efficiency.