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One-way airfare purchases have soared

An ARC study has found an increasing trend of one-way ticket purchases, a finding ARC called a "major shift in traveler behavior."

"In summary, the long-held belief that it is better to purchase roundtrip tickets whenever possible to get the best fares is simply no longer true," ARC said in a report on the study, "Myth Busting the Cost of One-Way Tickets."

Since 2014, the percentage of one-way tickets has increased each year, from 29% in 2014 to 42% in 2017 (January through May). Meanwhile, the percentage of roundtrip tickets has decreased each year, from 71% in 2014 to 58% in 2017.

Leisure travelers and unmanaged business travelers started the trend and are driving it. A parallel study using data from agencies that primarily serve government and corporate travel did not find the same trend.

ARC's study looked at purchasing windows for one-way tickets versus roundtrip, which historically, have been higher for close-in departures of three days or less. The study found an increase in one-way ticketing in longer purchase windows.

One-way tickets purchased at least three days in advance of departure were in the 50-60% range from 2014 to 2017, experiencing moderate growth. One-way tickets purchased more than 21 days in advance of travel increased from a little over 20% in 2014 to nearly 40% in 2017.

ARC said the premium cost for one-way ticketing vanished in some cases.

ARC combed data over the past three years from ARC-accredited agencies, both leisure and corporate, amounting to more than 350 million tickets. One-way travel was defined "as a single directional journey from one airport to another," whether on nonstop or connecting flights. Roundtrip travel was defined as "out-and-back from one airport to another and returning to the original airport," also including nonstop flights and connections.

ARC said those two types of tickets -- one-way and roundtrip -- account for about 95% of all air travel.

"Historically, prior to 2014, the percentage of one-way tickets versus roundtrip tickets stayed in the upper 20% range. This number did not change in any material way over the years," ARC's report stated. "The travel behavior driving this tendency to prefer roundtrip tickets versus one-way was largely driven from the belief that on a per-leg basis, fares would be generally lower if a roundtrip ticket were purchased."

That was the case, ARC said, until 2014, when the shift toward one-way ticketing began.

To track that trend, "ARC isolated the premium paid for one-way tickets versus the cost of an equivalent trip ticketed with a roundtrip itinerary," ARC's report stated. "The data in the study revealed that in some markets the one-way fare premium shrunk to almost zero since 2014."

In the past, ARC said a one-way premium could be 50% or more compared with a roundtrip ticket.

"Markets vary greatly due to demand and other factors, so blanket statements such as, 'You should always use one-way ticketing,' is not the take-away from this study. However, the number of markets where the one-way premium is disappearing is big," ARC's report stated. "Additionally, this is not a one-time or short-term event. This study clearly shows that one-way ticketing should not be ignored as it may have been in the past."

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