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Autumn air fare war heats up as airlines expand discounts


Travelers who played the waiting game this summer were rewarded yesterday when rival airlines not only matched the fare cuts announced by Delta Air Lines on Wednesday, offering discounts of up to 35 percent for travel through Dec. 15, but added three weeks to the start of the sale.

Delta had hoped to get past the busy Labor Day weekend before putting the discounts into effect on Sept. 15, but its rivals, including USAir, countered by allowing travel beginning Aug. 23.

Rather than risk losing passengers to other carriers, Delta also agreed yesterday to the earlier date. But it dropped the 14-day advance purchase required by most other airlines, although a spokesman said last night that the carrier was reviewing whether to reinstate it.

"It's a creative attempt to solve the industry's problem of lagging leisure traffic, but even if it works the carriers still have serious structural problems," said Chris Miller, pricing analyst for USTravel, the nation's fifth-largest travel agency.

The new fares are intended to address the lackluster traffic so far this year and predictions of an equally mediocre autumn. While fares have increased sharply in 1993, load factors -- the percentage of seats filled with paying passengers -- have been up one month and down the next.

Earlier this week, Jim Landry, president of the Air Transport Association, which represents major U.S. airlines, said the industry lost more than $400 million during the first six months of 1993, and $10 billion over the past three years.

The discounts announced this week are to some degree extensions of the 30 percent discounts on leisure travel that America West Airlines has offered in a series of eight sales since last November, the latest of which is good for travel through Sept. 30.

But America West accounts for only a little more than 2 percent of the market, whereas Delta, which initiated this round, accounts for almost 18 percent.

The new fares are nonrefundable, take effect toward the end of the summer travel season and impose other restrictions intended to prevent a repetition of last summer's disastrous fare war.

The discounts will be offered in stages -- somewhat like the fare structure that cruise ships have introduced over the last two years.

The savings will be 35 percent on tickets purchased now through Aug. 17, 30 percent from Aug. 18 to Aug. 31 and 25 percent from Sept. 1 to Sept. 15.

The new fares have several attractive features for leisure travel. While they require a Saturday night stay, they do not impose the usual travel blackouts over Labor Day and Thanksgiving.

Tickets can be purchased during a period of almost six weeks, instead of the five to 10 days allowed in most promotions.

The fares also apply to travel to Alaska, Hawaii, the United States Virgin Islands and San Juan, P.R., as well as Canada, Bermuda and Nassau in the Bahamas.

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