Air travelers find limited availability

LOW FARES, HIGH FRUSTRATION

September 09, 1993|By Suzanne Wooton | Suzanne Wooton,Staff Writer

So you want grab that $49 fare to Boston next weekend? Well, read the fine print before packing your bags.

Discounted airline fares, like the rock-bottom prices recently offered to Chicago and Cleveland, are a useful advertising hook that allows thousands of passengers to fly at affordable, sometimes ridiculously low rates.

But tucked in the 2 inches of fine print -- behind the asterisk and double asterisks -- is the standard admonishment: "Limited seating available."

And frustrated passengers often discover that the best fares simply aren't available when they want to travel.

"After big ads, passengers will scream false advertising, but it's really not," said Robert W. Ellenby, president of Safe Harbors Business Travel Group Inc. of Baltimore. "It's just that they called at the wrong time, for the wrong day, for the wrong place.

"Availability's always a problem. The fares are real, but passengers have to be flexible."

Indeed, the number of seats available at the lowest prices varies literally from minute to minute and flight to flight.

"There are some flights that are practically all discounted and there are some that have very few seats," said Gary Harig, assistant vice president for pricing and inventory management for USAir, the largest carrier at Baltimore-Washington International Airport.

Indeed, the demand spurred by low fares often makes it even more difficult to secure seats. USAir's $24.50 one-way weekend fare from Baltimore to Cleveland -- first advertised in mid-August -- is sold out for September and heavily booked the rest of the fall.

Airlines insist that every flight has seats initially available at the lowest advertised fares. ("They have to, because they've been caught," says Mr. Ellenby).

But just how many is one of the industry's most closely guarded secrets. And apparently there's no magic formula.

"What it boils down to is every seat on every flight is not sold at the cheapest fare," says Sally McCann, an agent for Travel Services Inc. of Baltimore.

For most flights, airlines offer a dozen different fares, most with restrictions. Even Southwest Airlines, which has the simplest fare structure of any major airline, imposes limited seating on its introductory fares, like the $19 oneway ticket to Cleveland, that it will offer at BWI when the airline begins service there next week.

Typically, discounted seats are more available on the least heavily booked flights. Passengers are more likely to get a good deal on a flight connecting to the West Coast, for instance, rather than a nonstop one. Vacation flights to Orlando -- for which passengers can be flexible -- will have more discounted seats than a Monday morning business flight to Chicago.

In the airline industry, the art of manipulating seats sold at a given price is known as yield management. Along with ticket prices, it is one of two ways that carriers control their revenues.

"They spend a lot of time and money making sure the right number of seats is available at the right time," said David Stempler, director of the International Association of Airline Passengers, a consumer group with 110,000 members worldwide. "There are whole departments with hundreds of employees watching this."

With 95 percent of the flying public using discount fares, control is critical for an industry that has lost $10 billion in the last four years -- much of it because of runaway fare wars.

As a result, airlines have invested millions in sophisticated computer technology that constantly generates figures on how to allocate seats. Minute by minute, the computers analyze the number of seats sold in a given category by using codes, like Y and V, that indicate the price of tickets.

If bookings aren't strong on certain flights, airlines may free up more discounted fare seats. If they're heavy, then the number of discounted seats could tighten up.

In addition, airlines also analyze huge amounts of historical data about travel patterns on business and leisure routes. They know what flights tend to fill up closer to departure time and which routes are the busiest on holidays.

That means Continental Airlines, for instance, was willing to offer Charlie Eisenmann of Baltimore a $90 round-trip fare over Labor Day weekend from BWI to Boston -- but only because he was willing to leave early Friday, change planes in Newark, and then return early Monday.

But the savings -- nearly $300 compared to the next-lowest fare -- was worth it for Mr. Eisenmann.

"You have to call early and be flexible," Mr. Eisenmann said last Friday before leaving for Boston to visit his brother.

Had he been been willing to book a flight at the last minute, he might have hooked the same low fare on a more convenient schedule. If a large group suddenly canceled, for instance, the airline might have immediately freed up more discounted seats.

"The whole point for the airlines is trying to fill up seats," said Mr. Ellenby.

FARING WELL

Here's a few hints on getting the best airline fares:

* Book as soon as possible after discount fares are advertised.

* Travel at off-peak times and be flexible about stopovers.

* Travel to destinations for which more flights are available.

* Call frequently since availability of discounted fares changes constantly.

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