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Despite drought, fall color forecast remains pretty

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Conventional wisdom holds that drought diminishes the brilliance of autumn foliage, but the dry summer in the Northeast may in fact have little effect on the colors, according to some professional observers.

In central Pennsylvania's 200,000-acre Bald Eagle State Forest, district forester Amy Griffith paints a pretty picture for prospects of a normal autumn.

"Moisture can affect color, but we have found that generally it really doesn't affect it all that much," she said.

"The northern half of the state hasn't been as impacted by the drought as the southeastern section has been," she said. "There are some trees that are a little less tolerant of drought that have dropped some leaves early, but not very many.

"As we get into fall, we are starting to get a little more rain," she added. "As long as the trees aren't so stressed that they drop their leaves early, I think that we should have pretty normal color this fall."

Regardless of how the colors change, tracking foliage on the Internet will be easier this year than ever. In recent years, many state tourism sites began posting leaf reports for their regions, and this year more regional sites have jumped on that bandwagon.

Yankee Magazine's foliage site at www.yankeefoliage.com has extensive information on the New England states, as well as useful links on topics such as how to best photograph the color. The U.S. Forest Service foliage site is at www.fs.fed.us / news / fallcolors; its foliage number is 800-354-4595.

Here's a list of other phone numbers, with state tourism Web sites, many of which also provide regular updates. (Leaf reports generally don't begin until the color changes begin, so try back if necessary.)

* Maryland, 800-532-8371; www.mdisfun.org.

* Pennsylvania, 800-325-5467; www.fallinpa.com. Also, for the Poconos region, 570-421-5565, www.800poconos.com.

* New Jersey, 609-777-0885; www.visitnj.org.

* Delaware, 800-441-8846; www.visitdelaware.net.

* Virginia, 800-434-5323; www.virginia.org.

* West Virginia, 800-225-5982; www.callwva.com.

* Connecticut, 800-282-6863; www.ctbound.org.

* Maine, 800-777-0317; www. state.me.us / doc / foliage.

* Massachusetts, 800-227-6277; www.massvacation.com.

* New Hampshire, 800-258-3608; www.visitnh.gov.

* New York, 800-225-5697; www.iloveny.com.

* Rhode Island, 401-222-2601; www.visitrhodeisland.com.

* Vermont, 800-837-6668; www.1-800-vermont.com.

In brief

Airlines scrambling, and that means fare bargains

Times are crazy for the airlines, so now is a great time to look for cheap flights. In midsummer, airfares were down to levels not seen since 1988, the Air Transport Association reports.

"The best thing for passengers is for things to get crazy among the airlines," said Al Comeaux, spokesman for Travelocity, which tracks airline travel around the world. "The airlines now are undercutting each other and doing clandestine deals," he said. "They are all watching to see what the others will do."

Comeaux added, "When everything is organized, you don't get any deals."

Organization in the past meant airfare sales showed up at relatively regular times, seasonally and for certain holidays but not much in between.

Now airlines have all manner of sales, and they show up at unpredictable times: Web fare sales; weekend Web fare sales; sales offered by certain travel agents; sales to a few destinations; sales to compete with low-fare carriers such as Southwest, Spirit and Jet Blue; last-minute sales; 12-hour sales; and sales that seem designed to punish competing airlines for not matching proposed price increases.

"It's dog-eat-dog out there," said Pam Nikitas, of Joan Anderson Travel in Detroit.

"We saw 45,000 fares go down in the middle of July," Comeaux added. "That's really unusual."

In early August, usually a quiet time, Northwest and American had a nine-day airfare war in Detroit. American led the way, offering discounts through selected travel agents. In mid-August, Northwest jumped the gun and announced its fall sale. Other airlines were forced to follow.

What's driving all this? The airlines, with the exception of a few low-fare carriers, are losing money fast.

First, it was the passenger nervousness that followed the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. Then it was the economy, which dipped and now promises to double dip. A few airlines declared bankruptcy.

Big airlines quickly realized they had too many planes with too many flights going to too many destinations -- but too few passengers. About 10 percent of U.S. passengers have yet to return to flying since Sept. 11.

Business travelers, upset by high costs, are cutting air travel, avoiding expensive last-minute flights in particular and turning to such things as teleconferencing. Showing a frugality not seen in the 1990s, they are booking flights weeks ahead to get cheaper seats. And like many leisure travelers, business folks are driving. "If a trip is less than four hours away by highway, people seem more interested in driving," said Nancy Cain of AAA Michigan, which helps travelers with maps and TripTiks for road travel.

"Considering that you have to be at the airport two hours ahead of flight time, it's almost faster to drive to Chicago from Detroit. And when you get there, you don't have to rent a car," she said.

And when people do fly, she said, "they are looking more at their pocketbooks than they did a year ago.

"A growing number of people are willing to travel on lesser-known carriers, the nongiants, to get good prices," she explained. "And on longer trips, they are more willing to accept stops along the way if it is cheaper."

Airlines are struggling to save money any way they can. Reduced numbers of flights. No meal service. Added charges for extra bags in checked luggage. Extra charges for paper tickets. No commissions for travel agents.

Three factors are having an effect, Comeaux said.

"One is low-fare carriers," he said. "As long as they are in the marketplace you will have a plentiful supply of low fares and pressure on large carriers to lower prices.

"Two, some carriers are in need of cash," he said. Sales do not produce long-term growth, but they generate quick cash that can be important if they are on the verge of bankruptcy.

The third factor, Comeaux said, would likely slow price cutting. "Carriers are pulling their capacity down," he said, meaning they are reducing their fleets and cutting the number of flights. "The ratio of supply and demand has been out of whack," he said. "There is just too little demand."

No mercy for no-shows

Nibble, nibble, bite, bite. The major airlines, fearful of further angering passengers by raising fares, seem hell-bent to find other ways to chew at our wallets.

Little ways, petty ways: Hefty charges for extra checked bags or oversized bags. A charge of $10 to $30 if you buy a paper ticket instead of an e-ticket. Extra charges if you are too big to fit into a coach seat.

Now the majors have decided to punish no-shows.

If you are going to miss your flight, they say, you must call ahead to cancel or rebook. Or else.

If you don't call ahead or rebook and you hold a nonrefundable ticket, you will lose the entire value of your ticket. Pfft, gone.

In the past, if you missed a flight and did not call, you could rebook on a later flight by paying a $100 penalty. Or you could fly standby the same day at no penalty.

The no-show, no-call penalty does not apply to people who have paid full price for refundable tickets -- typically business travelers.

Northwest Airlines seems to have a somewhat less restrictive policy when compared with airlines such as US Airways, American and Continental.

On Northwest's domestic flights, the airline allows you to stand by for another flight on the same day at no charge. American and Continental also allow same-day standbys, but you must pay a $100 fee.

US Airways has no similar option. So you can just throw the US Airways ticket in the trash.

Meanwhile, Southwest, the low-fare carrier, has opted not to punish no-shows. If you miss your flight, Southwest just gives you credit for another flight. No loss of ticket value, no fees.

Hmm. Isn't Southwest the airline that's making money, while the others are losing it?

From wire reports

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