Cost of flying keeps some MU international students from going home

Tuesday, November 30, 2010 | 5:26 p.m. CST; updated 9:37 a.m. CST, Wednesday, December 1, 2010

COLUMBIA — Iddisah Sulemana, a doctoral student in economics at MU, has not been home to Ghana for two years; it's been too expensive.

“Of course, if I get a cheap ticket, I’ll go,” Sulemana, 29, said. “So yeah, it’s a major factor.”

Sulemana and other international students at MU are finding the cost of airline tickets higher this year than last year, making the option to go home at the holidays less viable. But representatives of trade associations say prices are still lower than they were before the recession.

“I was looking at tickets today, and a round ticket was $1,800," Sulemana said in mid-November. "In the old days for $1,200 you can go home and come back.”

Then there's Matheus Souza, 20, a junior violin performance major from Brazil. In August, Souza bought a ticket home for winter break. But his performance schedule changed, requiring that he return to the U.S. earlier. He tried to change the return date but couldn't, so he searched for a single return ticket. But he found nothing affordable.

“If I were to buy only a one-way ticket, it would be $1,600 — and that was the cheapest,” Souza said. “Last year, I bought a ticket for $500 or $600 to Brazil."

Steve Lott, head of corporate communications for the International Air Transport Association, an airline trade association, said international flights generally cost more this year than last but are still less expensive than they were before the economic downturn. 

"The average international fare remains more than 10 percent below the prerecession levels we saw in 2008," Lott said. "There are fewer deals than we saw during the depths of the recession last year, but fares have not yet returned to the levels we saw before the recession."

David Castelveter, a spokesman for the Air Transport Association, another airline trade association, agreed.

"When people say that prices are too high, they are comparing it to last year’s,” Castelveter said. “Prices are still very low. They are higher than last year, but last year they were very low.”

He said that because of high fuel prices and the economic collapse, airlines have been losing money. That has just started to turn around.

According to a review put together by the Air Transport Association in November 2010, the price of air travel has not kept pace with U.S. inflation. Even though the prices have increased compared to last year, when compared with the overall trend, they are relatively cheap, Castelveter said.

“I always use this analogy," he said. "If you said I lost 10 pounds, that's great, but relative to what?”

The effect is the same for Sulemana, Souza and other students unable to afford international travel.

Since coming to the U.S. in August 2008, Sulemana has not seen his family face to face. Communication is mostly done by phone, usually on weekends.

“I miss my family and miss my friends,” he said. “But I mean, $1,800 or more to buy a ticket and go home and come back here? I don’t think that’s so economically wise.”

Souza has decided to stay in the U.S. during winter break and save his plane ticket for the summer.

“I think most of the time I’m going to stay here and maybe spend a little time visiting friends,” he said. 

Even though there are few classes over winter break, for the most part the university is open, and campus is accessible, said David Currey, assistant director of the International Center at MU. The bookstore, library, laboratory, research areas, health center and campus markets are open through much of the break.

The city bus system continues to run even though campus shuttles may not be as active during the holiday period, he said. 

Currey said there is often a lot for international students to do during winter break, including First Night, the city's New Year's Eve festival.

"I’d encourage them to read the paper to see what’s going on,” he said.

However, for those students not able to go home, most choose to travel outside of Columbia.

“To be honest, here in Columbia, there’s nothing much going on,” said Abdurrahman Alshiha, 24, a senior mechanical engineering student from Saudi Arabia and president of the Saudi Student Association. “I have been here last summer, and it was like a ghost town — nobody was around.”

Alshiha said he has a friend who has traveled to 30 out of 50 states during past breaks.

But there's no place like home.

“I have a girlfriend in Brazil, and that’s the worst part,” Souza said. “I want to be able to talk together, and not only on Skype but in real person.”

Sulemana said he’ll keep looking for cheap tickets and, eventually, go home. “Maybe Christmas next year,” he said.  

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