EXPERIENCING A LITTLE TURBULENCE Newsletter publisher stirs airlines' wrath


Paul Edwards was an out-of-work trade journalist when he decided last winter to begin publishing a newsletter for air travelers from a tiny Manhattan office.

The result was Travel Confidential, which lists conventions across the nation that have "meeting fare" arrangements with an airline. Those are discounted ticket prices offered to people going to the convention.

That may seem innocuous enough, but to American Airlines and other carriers, Mr. Edwards is the newsletter publisher who went too far.

American recently sued to shut down Travel Confidential, claiming that it encourages people who are not going to the conventions to use the discounted fares.

The newsletter is "nothing more than a handbook on how to cheatAmerican Airlines out of ticket revenue," the airline charged.

The case highlights the long-uneasy relationship between airlines and those who promote fare-busting.

Cheap-fare entrepreneurs have been around since airline deregulation spawned complex, ever-changing pricing systems. Their audience is narrow but dedicated: self-employed workers, small businesses and leisure fliers who will jump through any loophole to cut costs.

Knowledge of such loopholes may cause some people to travel who otherwise wouldn't. But airlines have grown increasingly intolerant of tactics that break ticketing rules -- such as posing as a conventioneer to get a cheaper ticket.

"You'll never eliminate the person who is aggressive and figures out a way to beat the system, but what the industry is really trying to do is target people who make that information flow," one airline official said.

Mr. Edwards contends that his newsletter is perfectly legal regardless of how readers use it.

"It's fairly clear [the airlines] just don't want another newsletter," hesaid. "They're sick and tired of this stuff, and they see an easy mark."

Other signs of an industry crackdown on system-beaters:

* In the past year, airlines have won legal victories against frequent-flier coupon brokers, who buy free travel awards and resell them at below-market prices in violation of airline rules. The defeats have driven many brokers out of business.

* Airlines are threatening to use computers to detect rules violations in the booking process. The prime targets are travel agencies that bend rules to cut costs for clients.

* United Airlines is scaling back a program linking frequent-flier points to credit-card purchases. A few holders of the United affinity cards were netting tens of thousands of points every month by buying huge traveler's checks -- which they then used to pay off the bill.

Newsletter editors fear the Travel Confidential case foretells a broadening attack. "Their philosophy seems to be that if you do anything they don't like they've got a big bank of lawyers ready to pounce," said John Holland, publisher of Business

Flyer, a magazine about frequent-flier awards and promotions.

Ed Perkins, editor of Consumer Reports Travel Letter, which dispenses general fare-cutting advice, said airlines can close loopholes or enforce rules by voiding tickets or penalizing agents. But publishing information should not be a legal issue, he argued.

Mr. Edwards said his newsletter is aimed mainly at travel agents and managers who need a single-source guide to discounts. But the airlines don't buy that.

"The only reason for that type of publication is to make meeting fares available to people who are not eligible to use them," said Neil Monroe, a Delta Air Lines spokesman.

"He encourages people to lie and misrepresent themselves," said Tim Smith, an American spokesman. The airline is seeking $750,000 in damages.

For now, it is Mr. Edwards who is profiting. The suit created national publicity for his fledgling newsletter. Subscriptions, which started at 100, are approaching 500. "It's been good for business," he said.

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