NEW YORK -- Passengers apparently love them. Travel agents seem to hate them. And the airlines say that they are a stimulant during the annual slow season, worsened this year because of the slump in the economy.
They are the new "companion" fares, which started out as a discount promotion by American Airlines for its frequent-flier program participants and have now spread like a forest fire throughout the industry.
After American sent coupons to its frequent fliers offering a companion ticket for $50, United Airlines followed with a missive to its regular customers offering the same for $25. Northwest Airlines then said it would honor the American and United coupons.
Continental Airlines and Midway Airlines subsequently joined in DTC offering $25 companion tickets. Then Sunday, Northwest dropped the price of a companion ticket to nothing, and all the others followed.
It's the old two-for-one gimmick -- with plenty of restrictions.
Travelers have until Nov. 30 to buy coach tickets. The promotions, designed to attract leisure travelers, not business people, apply only to the lowest supersaver fares. Trips must be taken by Feb. 28. The tickets are non-refundable, must be purchased seven to 14 days in advance and require a Saturday night stay.
Moreover, travel must occur between noon Monday and noon Thursday. There are blackout periods on the busy Christmas and New Year's travel days.
Finally, at these fares, there are only so many seats sold on each flight -- and many of them have already been gobbled up.
USAir says that it has done so well with the sale of tickets that many flights are already sold out of special fare seats through the end of the promotion. "If a traveler is flexible, he or she might still find a seat," says David Shipley, a spokesman for the Pittsburgh-based carrier.
Under the rules, those who purchased seats before the promotion can turn in their tickets and substitute the lower fares.
Hence the travel agents' disaffection.
"It's double the work for half the commission," complained Annemarie Lindskog, an agent with Worldtek Travel in New Haven, Conn.
Lindskog said that she has been swamped with requests for free tickets. For instance, a couple who had bought two round-trip tickets to Florida from Connecticut had paid $253, she said, and will now be able to fly for half that.
Other carriers say that they are also filling a lot of seats with the promotional fares.
Edward Starkman, airline analyst with Paine Webber, a New York broker, says that there may be still deeper promotions soon. Domestic boardings were flat in October.