If you are gnashing your teeth because you bought an airplane ticket before the airlines began slashing prices last week, don't despair. There's a good chance you can fly at the new lower fares.
Although many passengers aren't aware of it, most airlines will refund the difference if you ask. And many travel agencies are contacting their customers who are eligible for refunds and issuing them new tickets at lower prices, generally at no charge.
Steven Durham, senior travel counselor for Ramsay Scarlett Travel Inc. in Baltimore, said,"We're very proud of the fact we give excellent service to our customers. We guarantee the lowest fare."
In practical terms, that means his agency has been going through all its accounts looking for people who qualify for refunds. And the agency has found lots of them. Seventy-five to 100 tickets have been reissued, he said.
Travel agents say most airlines permit refunds. "A lot of people don't know that. The airlines, they're not going to call you up to give the money back," said Karen Alexander, manager of corporate and vacation travel for Towson Travel Center Inc.
"They make it difficult on the passenger," said Anne Schmidt, president of Galleria Travel Center Inc. in Lutherville. The rules about who is eligible for a refund are not always clear cut, she said, and it often comes down to what the counter agent decides.
USAir's policy is relatively straightforward for the passenger who wants to get the lower fare for the same flight. Susan Young, a spokeswoman for the airline, said it will issue a refund or a credit for the lower fare to any passenger as long as his or her travel plans remain the same. If the passenger wants to change the itinerary, the airline will charge a $25 fee for issuing a new ticket.
American Airlines set off a fare war when it announced last Friday a new structure including just four ticket classifications. Two are aimed at business travelers: first class and coach. Two are aimed at leisure travelers: tickets requiring purchase either seven or 21 days in advance.
American said it wanted to simplify the complicated fare structure while cutting rates for business travelers. Most major airlines quickly followed suit, while carriers like Trans World Airlines, which already had been undercutting the majors, announced fares substantially below American's new rates.
Rate simplification also brought with it the elimination of many of the discounts offered to certain groups.
USAir, for example, has stopped its discounted child and bereavement fares. Night fares end today and student fares will end May 1.
Moreover, a 10 percent discount offered to senior citizens will end April 30. The airline will continue to offer coupon books to seniors. But the price of the books will increase 20 percent to $620 for a four-coupon book and $1,080 for a eight-coupon book. Each coupon is good for a one-way trip anywhere in the United States or Puerto Rico.
USAir is also dropping its 50 percent discount off regular coach fare for people in the military and their families in most markets, but will continue to offer 25 percent discounts in certain markets with many military travelers.
The sweeping changes are causing headaches for travel agents and increasing their costs. They are also experiencing a big surge in customer inquiries about prices, though actual bookings have not risen much, several travel gencies reported yesterday.
Jay Ellenby, of Safe Harbors Business Travel Group Inc., said he has seen business travel purchases increase as much as 25 percent in the past week.