CONSUMER FLY LOW FARE WELL

Air travel doesn’t have to be sky-high

IT’S A RARE individual who has been able to keep track of and take full advantage of the burgeoning number of air fares these past few years. Since the airline industry’s deregulation in 1978, fare wars and the emergence of regional and no-frills carriers have turned the once-civilized skies into a mind-boggling tangle of possibilities for the traveler and an unheavenly headache for the airlines themselves.

The industry has been plagued by losses. More than $2 billion was lost between 1980 and 1983. With fewer people flying because of the recession, the anxious airlines lured passengers with dramatic, unrestricted discounts. Dan Kaplan, a Civil Aeronautics Board (CAB) economist, estimates that well over 80 percent of last year’s passengers were traveling on some sort of reduced fare.

But, since last year, air traffic has been rising. Although a lot of red ink is still flowing, many airlines saw profits for the first time in years-in the first financial quarter of 1984.

The perennial problem for airlines is that, in daily operations, it’s impossible to adjust changes in supply to changes in demand. Now, they are trying to force up the average price per seat by limiting discounts while still filling the plane by having the few avall-able discount seats paid for in advance.

Kaplan estimates that no more than 50 percent of air travelers will be able to take advantage of discount fares. But Kaplan also predicts more of the peak/off-peak pricing favored by Muse and Southwest Airlines.

In April 1983, American Airlines tried to rationalize the fragmented fare structure by pricing all routes on a cents-per-mile basis and offering only four or five price categories per flight: First Class, Business Class (long flights only), Coach, Off-peak Coach (25 percent off) and Super Saver (50 percent off round trip, advance purchase).

Lowell Duncan of American Airlines says that this plan is “working out super.” A year ago, a look at prices revealed seven fare categories. Now, fares include at least eight different categories (and an overall higher price mix):

First Class-150 percent of Full Coach

First Class Night

Full Coach

Full Coach Night

Easy Saver-one-week advance purchase and one Saturday night stayover, about 35 percent off Coach.

Super Saver-two-week advance purchase, with Tuesday and Wednesday departures less expensive, up to 50 percent off Coach.

Night Super Saver

“There will always be some wrinkles,” says Duncan, who says that competition is still the ruling force in rate setting. This year, American claims that “wrinkles” remain on 10 to 20 percent of American’s routes.

During the past year, advance purchase requirements have also been made more strict. These requirements don’t affect vacationers, who can plan ahead, as much as they affect business travelers. Because of the last-minute nature of many business trips, these passengers are the ones who are forced to pay Full Coach fares again.

So how can you be assured of securing one of the dwindling number of cheap seats? The first thing to do when planning any trip is to find out which airlines serve the route(s) you’ll be traveling and what kind of fare option each offers. (Until the industry moves to act more in concert, there’ll be differences in the rules of each fare structure.) If you’re planning more than one stop, look at each point-to-point trip as well as at the entire itinerary.

As American’s schedule illustrates, timing is the critical factor. When you book, how long you stay, what time of day, what day of the week you fly and even the time of year can make hundreds of dollars’ worth of difference. Each airline has its own fare “menus,” and each tries to match the competition’s lowest fares for at least some seats. The more competitors that are on the route, the more likely you are to find a bargain. Most discounts have strings attached, so be prepared to be flexible.

CALLING EACH AIRLINE to get the information is a tedious and often frustrating task. You’re frequently put on hold and forced to listen to music to gnash your teeth by or a series of “thank you for calling” recordings. Once you get a real person on the line, you may have to ask several times (or even call more than once) before a truly “this is my best offer” fare is mentioned.

Last year, while trying to bargain hunt, I placed a call to the reservations desk at Trans World Airways. TWA had recently announced dramatic September price cuts on fares to Europe ($398 round trip from New York to London, subject to U.K. government approval), and I wanted some more information. I asked for the new low fall price and was told it was offered from Houston to London for $723 round trip. Was that the lowest price? Yes, fares wouldn’t drop again until November 1. What about this new $398 round-trip from New York? Oh well, then the round trip would be $569. Is one nonstop and one through New York? No, both are through New York. The reservation clerk then proceeded to clarify the slightly differing restrictions for each fare. One of the requirements for the $569 was advance purchase. Did I want to make a reservation now and pay for it by credit card? I demurred. Checking with my travel agent later that day, I learned that the British government had refused permission for that fare the day before. Welcome to the Schizzy Skies! (Attention Europe-bound bargain hunters: Look for a special $718 round-trip standby fare on TWA’s Dallas-to-London route.)

Bear in mind, too, that many airlines offer some form of unrestricted discount, which may be slightly higher-or slightly lower-on weekends. Always ask about Super Savers of either the one-Saturday-night or one- to two-week variety, and check out night discounts. Get on a waiting list if nothing is immediately available. Remember that hundreds of dollars are at stake!

For Dallas and Fort Worth travelers, Southwest and Muse offer heavily discounted routes. It pays to check with them if one is going your way, since they and their competitors will be flying “low.” Southwest and Muse each offer a variation of a two-tiered price scheme: Business (or Executive) Class (all seats, daytime weekday flights) and Leisure (or Pleasure) Class (generally all seats on evenings and weekends). Be prepared for some inconvenience since longer flights are not always non-stop, and some require plane changes as well. Also, because of Love Field restrictions, you have to book a flight to Los Angeles via Houston. (Although at $99 one way from Los Angeles to Houston, it’s pretty tempting!)

Braniff, another hometown airline, has eliminated first-class fares entirely and currently offers “Business Class” (a comfy, all-frills Coach), and Economy, which includes a variety of restricted discount fares. Ted Lagow, Braniff s senior vice president of marketing, says: “We want to treat full-fare passengers better than other airlines do, but I couldn’t tell you in an hour how many discount fares there are.”

A good travel agent can be of tremendous help in cutting through some of this madness. Like therapists, they are paid to help you sort out reality. Choose an agent the way you would a therapist: Find one who’ll work with your specific problems.

Agents are paid a percentage fee (usually around 10 percent) by the airlines themselves, but reputable ones won’t take your money and run. They take pride in finding the best deals for their customers in the hope of maintaining long-term relationships and getting good word-of-mouth references.

In theory, all agents with computer systems have access to the same information, which should index all data from participating airlines. Although they’re included, the smaller regional airlines have been grumbling and even suing because, as they see it, their data appears last on agent systems (which are developed and leased by the major airlines). Be sure to ask your agent to check out such regionals as Southwest and Muse when those airlines are flying to your destination. Remember to keep asking, “Is there anything cheaper? Weekends? Nights? Super Savers? Excursions?” The more knowledgeable you are (or appear to be), the more you may be able to jog the agent’s computer fingers.

Bob Gilbreath of Travel Network suggests making a reservation at the best currently available price and paying for it as soon as you know you will travel. Since only international discount fares carry a cancellation fee (and these only a limited number of days in advance), this strategy makes good sense. Then you should check back with your agent at regular intervals to keep abreast of changes.

At Apple Travel, Henry Rosenblum has added a separate program to his computer system to review clients’ reservations and to spot possible fare reductions. But his mother, veteran agent Sylvia Rosenblum, tends to concur with Gilbreath. She says, “If you get a good price, buy it on the spot! Fares change without warning overnight.” Says Gilbreath: “It’s like the Stock Exchange. The prices we quote are only good until closing time that day.”

So buy low and fly high! Although in dustry maneuvers point to higher fares, a bit of sleuthing, planning and ready cash (or credit) can go a long way toward securing money-saving travel.

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