Airlines try to lure travelers overseas


Want to go to Europe this year? The airlines and the travel industry sure hope you do.

After last year's dismal spring-summer tourism season, which was shattered by the Persian Gulf war and a sour economy, air carriers and tour companies are counting on a big rebound in 1992.

But even now, many would-be travelers are nervous about spending. And once abroad, Americans find that the weak U.S. dollar cuts into their buying power.

So it's the peak season for promotions, as the travel industry tries to get Americans flying across the Atlantic Ocean, dubbed the Red Sea by some because of the losses racked up by U.S. and European airlines in 1991.

Last week, major airlines cut their lowest spring and summer trans-Atlantic fares through March 31. The new round-trip fares, which abound with restrictions, are as low as $448 to the United Kingdom and $548 to the continent for travel in April, May and September. Prices go up $100 for summer travel.

Those fares are not as low as some of last year's sale fares, but they show that the airlines believe the market still needs priming. Deeper cuts may be available in some markets.

British Airways, one of several European carriers bracing for tougher U.S. competition from heavyweights Delta, American and United airlines, shipped a motor coach across the Atlantic and sent it on a 19-city promotional tour to pump up vacation bookings. The airline is of fering 14-day, all-inclusive plane-bus tours for as little as $127 per day.

People with a hankering to see Russia in disarray can get to Moscow for $598 round trip from New York on Trans World Airlines. TWA on Tuesday joins Delta as the second U.S. flag carrier serving the former Soviet capital. Delta is not matching the TWA promotional fare; its lowest price to Moscow is $1,012 from New York.

Some airlines are going beyond fare cuts. In one of the most sensational promotions, residents of Michigan and certain Midwestern cities who fly Northwest Airlines between Detroit and London by April 15 get a free round-trip ticket to Sydney, Australia -- worth $1,348.

So will all the hype work?

"You can't hold Americans back from Europe," said Janet Algers, spokeswoman for Atlanta-based American Express Vacations, the package tour arm of American Express Co. "They have a fascination with it."

But she conceded that bookings, while ahead of last year, have not yet rebounded to 1990 levels.

Marty Heires, a spokesman for American Airlines, which led last week's industry-wide airfare cuts, said the move was prompted by advance bookings that have been just "OK."

"They're not strong, but they're not real weak either, like they were a year ago," he said.

At Atlanta-based Delta, which took over Pan American World Airways' European route network last fall and has a lot riding on a successful debut season, "Advance bookings to Europe have been looking real good," said Al Kolakowski, senior vice president of sales.

The weak U.S. dollar, which translates to stiff lodging and meal costs once travelers arrive, remains a travel turnoff.

"Getting there is not the biggest economic barrier," said Ed Perkins, editor of Consumer Reports Travel Letter. "The airfare could be free -- and it would still be an expensive trip."

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