Often the only hard and fast rule in the up-again, down-again market for airline tickets is that fares can and will change.
Yesterday, following the lead of industry heavyweight American Airlines, USAir began offering mileage-based fares for the first time, and its revamped fare structure is no exception to ticket-price volatility.
"In some cases, [prices] will be higher. In some cases, they will be lower," said Susan J. Young, a USAir spokeswoman at the carrier's Arlington, Va., headquarters.
A sampling of round-trip coach fares from USAir's hub at Baltimore-Washington International Airport -- where the airline controls about 60 percent of the traffic -- illustrates the varying results.
While the round-trip coach-class fare from BWI to Orlando, Fla., has dropped more than 10 percent, the fare to Los Angeles has increased more than 30 percent.
And as the fares change, so do the restrictions and rules. As part of an industrywide push to regain control of ticket pricing, USAir has divided its fares into two categories: flights of less than 400 miles and flights of 401 miles or more.
For the shorter flights, the carrier has created two classes of advance purchase tickets, while passengers flying longer distances have three advance purchase options.
A new 21-day advance purchase, non-refundable ticket is now available for trips 400 miles or less. The old 14-day advance purchase ticket, which was available until yesterday, has been discontinued for flights in this market. USAir also offers a seven-day advance purchase ticket that carries a 50 percent penalty for changes or cancellations.
For flights of 401 miles or more, USAir offers a 14-day advance purchase fare, in addition to the 21-day and seven-day fares. The seven-day fares on longer flights also carry the change and cancellation penalty.
The new pricing system comes in the wake of discount and promotional pricing started by financially troubled carriers such as Eastern Air Lines Inc., which slashed prices to generate cash flow. Competing carriers were compelled to meet the low fares or forfeit market share.
"Eastern Air Lines really messed up the fare structure for the two years they were in bankruptcy," said Timothy Pettee, an airline analyst with Alliance Capital Management in New York.
"They destroyed the advance booking features and some of the levels of fare management that airlines try to employ."
Now that Eastern is gone and war jitters have subsided, USAir and other carriers are trying to regain control of ticket pricing.
To further fine-tune its pricing structure, USAir has created 19 "mileage break" categories that assign prices in 50-, 100- and 250-mile intervals on a scale up to 2,600 round-trip miles flown.
The airline industry's new mileage-based fares are supposed to help standardize the fare-setting process, but some agents see only confusion.
"I can't even figure it out," said Michele A. Wimer, an agent at Uniglobe Accent Travel Inc. in White Marsh. "You find yourself second-guessing and verifying with the airline to make sure what is right."
As a result, the new structure can more than double the time it takes an agent to complete a reservation, Ms. Wimer said.
So far, most major carriers have adopted a mileage-based fare system, but aggressive discounting by an industry player could quickly dissolve the system and send the industry back to cutthroat price-slashing.
USAir began offering its new mileage-based fares yesterday. Here are sample round-trip excursion fares to and from Baltimore-Washington International Airport. The old 14-day advance purchase fares, which were non-refundable, are shown for comparison. The 21-day and 14-day advance purchase tickets are non-refundable. Seven-day advance purchase tickets are 50-percent refundable. Chart shows peak and off-peak fares. Peak fares are generally charged on weekends and most popular travel times and vary from market to market. Off-peak fares are generally charged for midweek travel. Fares are subject to change at any time.