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Surprising even the airlines, air fares manage a sharp rise Price confusion worries travel agents


In a turnabout that has surprised even airline officials, the average ticket price has risen sharply this year -- not only from last summer, when a half-price sale helped put 24 million Americans in the air, but higher than in the first six months of 1991.

With money-losing carriers striving to show profits, the increase shows signs of holding, despite sporadic fare sales, and even though upstart regional carriers are forcing the biggest airlines to lower prices on competitive routes.

One consequence of the shifts: A year after the airlines abandoned efforts to simplify air fares, the fare categories are as numerous as ever, and just as confusing to passengers and worrisome to travel agents.

Moreover, while bargains can still be had on selected routes, sales and discounts are more narrowly focused than they were in the past.

As a result, analysts say, if all goes according to script -- in an industry where lately very little has gone that way -- prices will continue to rise in small increments.

"There have been very substantial fare increases since last year,

both in leisure and business fares," said Robert Harrell, vice president of the air-fare management unit of American Express Travel Related Services.

The average domestic ticket price was $535 last month, according to Topaz Enterprises of Portland, Ore., an air-fare auditing firm. That was not only higher than the $458 average of June 1992 but was up almost 12 percent from the $479 average in June 1991.

The nation's big airlines have put through the increases in an attempt to stanch their flow of red ink, and have done so even though traffic remains sluggish.

In December alone, the carriers pushed through three price increases totaling 20 percent on unrestricted coach fares, the highest-priced economy fares used mostly by business travelers. Several other increases have since been tacked on.

From the viewpoint of the carriers, which lost $3 billion last year and almost $10 billion since 1989, the higher fares are long overdue.

This week, American reported a modest $47 million profit for th second quarter, and Delta and several other carriers have

similarly crept into the black in the quarter.

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