Early birds get the deals as summer travel booms Crowds: Planes are jampacked, and vacation planners are going to have to be flexible.

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Tom Parsons knows just how crowded summer air travel will be.

"Sardines in a box," the editor of Best Fares travel magazine says. "It's going to get even fuller than that, because the airlines will keep offering and offering and offering us deals because the fares have been so much higher lately. This summer is going to be a mess."

So crowded, says Bob Ensten, owner of American Made Travel in Novato, Calif., "that if you don't call me a minimum of 30 days in advance -- and in some markets 90 days in advance -- you're going to be lucky to get on the plane at all."

The "load factor" -- the percentage of paying passengers filling the seats -- tells the tale: It was 69.8 percent for 1996, the highest percentage in 50 years, and 1997 is outpacing 1996.

March's figure was 74 percent -- and the heavy months are still ahead.

"The airlines would have loved to have had these spring numbers in the summer just a few years ago," says Parsons. "It says two things: Get to the airport early, and bring a picture ID, because the airports will be jammed."

Throughout the airline industry, base fares cost 10 percent to 40 percent more than last year, giving carriers reason to expect a second consecutive profitable year.

In the first five years of the 1990s, they had lost $13 billion.

Nationwide, domestic and international travel are equally strong, according to the Air Transport Association's measurement of "revenue passenger miles" (one RPM is one paying passenger transported one mile). March's figures showed an increase of 7.5 percent over March 1996.

The Travel Industry Association in Washington anticipates nearly 40 million air vacation trips this summer, up 3 percent over last year, says spokesman Mike Pina.

The reasons are simple: "Economy good, unemployment low, interest rates low, consumer confidence up. Things are good."

At American Airlines headquarters in Fort Worth, Texas, spokesman Tim Smith says the growth and low weekend fares have changed travel habits. Travel on weekends as well as on Fridays and some Mondays has surpassed weekday volume.

"It tells us that people are making more spur-of-the-moment weekend trips, and so we made those fares available," says Smith.

With all that company traveling, says Smith, people who have yet to make vacation plans "may want to maintain that attitude of consumerism 101: Be flexible -- and think about midweek travel."

Pricing in large part explains the climbing numbers.

"When you see a $59 fare in the paper, there will be a lot of people traveling," says TWA sales representative Melinda McGean in Seattle.

"It has a halo effect over the industry, and more people are more inclined to think that since they've flown to Las Vegas, they should fly to Disney World."

Pub Date: 6/01/97

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