Seniors find it's getting cheap to fly Carriers competing to fill empty seats with folks over 62; Bargain fares abound; Baltimore-to-Miami and back home for as little as $138

THE BALTIMORE SUN

It pays to be a senior in the skies these days with airlines quietly battling to fill up empty seats with passengers over 62.

The competition -- which has produced round-trip fares as low as ZTC $138 between Baltimore and Miami -- began two weeks ago when American Airlines launched its senior discount membership program known as AActive American Traveler Club. Since then, other airlines have scrambled to undercut American's deals.

"There's one heck of a battle for seniors right now," said Tom Parsons, publisher of Best Fares Discount Travel Magazine in Dallas. "They have a lot of flexible time and a lot have discretionary income. The airlines are looking for everything they can to fill up their planes."

Traditionally, the airlines have given seniors a 10 percent discount on their lowest available fare. But the new senior fares -- probably the most sweeping program targeted at a specific age group since the youth fares of the 1970s -- goes well beyond that.

For example, American's senior fare from Baltimore to Dallas is $178 round trip, compared with its 21-day advance fare of $318. Between Miami and Baltimore, the round-trip fare is $138, compared with $226.

Unlike special fare sales, the senior fares are available in most markets, albeit on a limited basis. But don't expect to find these deals widely advertised. In fact, don't expect your travel agent -- or even an airline's reservation agents -- to know about them.

"This is a very, very hidden deal," Parsons said. "We called every major airline that had these deals and 50 percent of their reservation agents couldn't even find it.

"It's on the Internet, too, but I don't think the consumer knows it's there," he said.

The senior fares program is just one hidden deal that is helping the airlines fill up planes. Most airlines, for instance, now offer "E-saver" fares for passengers willing to book a seat on Wednesday for travel at limited times the following weekend.

Travel agents can use the special codes to find the deals listed in the airlines' computer reservation systems, or they can call the carrier directly.

Parsons says travelers booking the tickets themselves must specify that they want the newly reduced fares with senior discounts, not the standard 10 percent discount. He suggests saying: "I would like the lowest possible senior fare between X city and X city. Please check to see if a new special senior round-trip fare is available, using your special senior code."

American said it has targeted senior citizens by direct mail and through organizations. The airline's annual membership fee for the senior program is $40 for an individual or $60 that allows the senior to take along one companion per trip at the special fare. The companion can be any age.

The senior fare -- duplicated by most of the other airlines -- is the latest way that airlines have been boosting to record levels the percentage of seats filled with paying passengers. Some require annual dues.

"It's kind of a win-win situation," said Bill Dreslin, a spokesman for Dallas-based American. "This generates traffic in the off-season. When everyone else goes back to work, seniors can take off and do things. What we're trying to do is to get people to travel at good fares when there is space available."

American operates only eight flights a day at Baltimore-Washington International Airport -- to San Juan, Miami and Dallas -- and three American Eagle commuter flights to John F. Kennedy Airport in New York, which connect to international flights there.

"We've matched those type fares without requiring or creating a membership program," said David Caselveter, a spokesman for the Arlington, Va.-based US Airways, which operates 45 percent of the daily flights at BWI. "You can just call and get this fare saying you'd like to take advantage of US Airways' senior program."

Annual memberships can be purchased in American's program through Sept. 30. Restrictions and travel blackouts apply. For instance, American does not permit international travel on the special fares in July and August; US Airways blocks out most transcontinental and Caribbean flights. But if you can book a ticket, the fare is good for nearly a year.

Airline officials concede that the senior program is subject to fraud by passengers who lie about their age. But, with passengers now required to show identification for security purposes, ticket agents can verify birth dates.

With airlines constantly reloading new fares into their computer systems, some of the deals last only a day, some a week and some much longer. Should American decide tomorrow to scrap its program, other airlines can be expected to rapidly follow suit.

"These deals can come and go quickly," said Parsons. "But for now, seniors can find some amazing bargains out there."

Pub Date: 7/05/97

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