A Continental Airlines plane is fueled at George Bush Intercontinental...

A Continental Airlines plane is fueled at George Bush Intercontinental Airport in Houston. (April 16, 2010) Credit: AP

Airfares are up and headed higher this summer. Airlines blame soaring fuel prices, which could cost them billions more than last year. That means fares, which normally rise as the summer travel season nears, could increase faster than normal.

Airlines have already pushed through two major price increases this year. It's a sign of things to come. "You'll see gradual increases and then a much bigger jump in April and May when people start shopping for the summer travel season," says Rick Seaney, CEO of travel website FareCom pare .com.

The latest data on average fares show that Southwest charged $140 each way during the fourth quarter, JetBlue charged $156 and United Continental charged $270. Length of flight accounted for most of the difference -- on a per-mile basis, prices were similar.

The average fare rose 9 percent between January 2011 and January 2012, according to Airlines for America, a trade group of the biggest carriers. The spot price of jet fuel rose 18 percent over the same period, according to government figures. Airlines burn 48 million gallons a day, making fuel their biggest expense.

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