Airline fare wars benefit travelers


With their latest round of airfare cuts, the nation's air carriers are trying to encourage even the most penny-pinching travelers to plan vacations now.

Several of the nation's major airlines, including Continental USAir and Northwest, have announced they will match discount ticket prices announced Tuesday by American Airlines.

Mindful of market share -- particularly in light of the current soft demand for travel -- the carriers have duplicated American's fares, essentially locking in industry-wide low ticket prices to some of the nation's most popular destinations.

Though American was quick to follow the lead of Delta Air Lines in the most recent round of price cutting, industry officials and analysts suggest that a newly unveiled American pricing strategy is a subtle attempt to raise fares, the Associated Press reported last night. American's new fares go into effect April 9, the day after the carrier is scheduled to drop its discount fares.

American tickets purchased with 14-day or less advance notice would become more expensive, while passengers booking flights 30 days in advance would pay cheaper fares, the Associated Press said.

American has denied that the new structure amounts to a blanket increase in prices. But the airline added that it was trying to restore "some common sense . . . to ticket pricing that has been missing over the past several months," the Associated Press reported.

In the meantime, travelers departing from Baltimore-Washington International Airport on American and the other major airlines have until April 8 to take advantage of cheap fares. They're dramatically lower than the rates of a few days ago, according to area travel agents.

Before the most recent price slashing, for example, a seven-day advance notice, roundtrip flight to Chicago from BWI was about $350, according to travel agent Michael E. Marchand, manager of the Inner Harbor office of Going Places Inc.

Now, with the latest fare cuts, that trip costs as little as $178.

Honolulu is a perennial favorite for vacations during this time of year.

Prior to the fare decrease, "the absolute rock bottom price was $667," said Charles J. Roumas, vice president of marketing for Philadelphia-based Travel One Inc.

"They've slashed it 25 percent" to $498, Mr. Roumas said.

Though travel agents report a modest turnaround in depressed air travel demand in the weeks since the Persian Gulf war ended, American spokeswoman Laura A. Clement said the carrier's discount rates "are designed to stimulate traffic right now" by requiring passengers to book flights before the April 8 deadline.

The special rates are aimed at leisure travelers taking spring and summer vacations, and the lower ticket prices apply for travel between now and Sept. 20.

The promotion has apparently sparked renewed interest in flying.

Yesterday, the first day American offered its new fares, Fort Worth, Texas-based American's reservations shot up 43 percent for domestic reservations, Ms. Clement said. Michele A. Wimer, a vacation planner with Uniglobe Accent Travel Inc. in White Marsh, says the phones in her office have been "ringing off the hook" with travelers' inquiries about the new prices.

But the low fares may not be for everyone. Because the discounts are not refundable and carry varying restrictions and stipulations regarding advance purchase and limited availability, travelers must be willing to make their plans now and stick to them.

Even though the low fares were created to stimulate traffic, it is too early to tell just how effective that effort will be, given the economy's overall weakness, say observers.

USAir spokesman Dave Shipley said the carrier matched the discounts for competitive reasons, but isn't in the habit of initiating such "sweeping fare cuts, especially when the industry is experiencing significant losses" as it has in recent months.

With the varying financial health of the nation's airlines, Travel One's Mr. Roumas advises passengers to book tickets with credit cards to protect themselves in the long run.

"We are advising credit card payments on carriers that have been in the press a lot lately, specifically Midway, Pan Am and TWA," he said.

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