Tight Squeeze Looms For Holiday Travelers

Travel agent Agnes Ludwikowski got a shock this week while booking two round-trip tickets from Washington, D.C., to Denver.

"I wish I could find something lower but everyday they just seem to be going up," Ludwikowski told CBS News transportation and consumer safety correspondent Nancy Cordes.

One for this month for $375, and another for Thanksgiving weekend.

"We looked at the prices and it had jumped up to $691 - same exact flight and one month later. Double the price! Limited availability," Ludwikowski said.

Very limited.

According to the travel Web site FareCompare.com, U.S. Airways has 18,192 fewer seats the Wednesday before Thanksgiving than they did last November. Northwest, 11,300 fewer. Continental, 9,500 and United, 9,200.

"The number of flights hasn't changed that much. What's drastically changed is the size of airplanes," said Rick Seaney, CEO of FareCompare.com. "The airlines are flying 50-, 70- and 100-seat jets where they used to be flying 130- or 150-seat jets."

The cities that have lost the most seats - Detroit, Houston, Washington, Boston, Philadelphia and Minneapolis.

FYI: Check out how more cities rank and how many seats each airline cut this year.
"The cities that have a reduction in seats, I would try to avoid at all costs when connecting. Because what's gonna happen is you're gonna get there and if there is any delay, there's gonna be nowhere to put you," Seaney said.

Switching to smaller regional jets has allowed the airlines to offer more flights per day, but the cost is capacity.

It would take nearly five Embracer 50-seaters to carry the load of one 757. Plus, there's less opportunity to stretch out. That's a point Southwest, which only flies full-sized planes, chose to highlight in its new ads.

And Southwest's fleet of 737s aren't even as large as the double-aisle widebodies, like 747s, that many airlines mothballed when travel demand fell after 9/11.

"Those planes have all been sold now. Or leased. They're being used in Central American, Eastern Europe, or Africa," said Aviation Industry Analyst Peter Goelz.

FareCompare.com did find that many of the budget airlines - Jet Blue, Air Tran, Southwest and the new Virgin America - have added thousands of seats since last Thanksgiving to cities such as Orlando, San Francisco, Denver, Seattle, Los Angeles and New Orleans.

And checking with those budget airlines may be the best bet if you want to get to Grandmother's house without breaking the bank.

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    Nancy Cordes is CBS News' congressional correspondent.