Excursion ploy no longer a sure thing


April 15, 1994|By Suzanne Wooton | Suzanne Wooton,Sun Staff Writer

Business travelers who fly midweek to major cities are finding it less attractive to execute the popular maneuver known as "back-to-back ticketing" to avoid Saturday night stays and still take advantage of lower excursion fares.

For a long time, it was often cheaper to buy two round-trip excursion tickets, requiring Saturday night stays, rather than pay a midweek round-trip fare.

Business travelers would purchase two round-trip tickets and use half of one ticket to leave and half of the other ticket to return.

Typically, that saved hundreds of dollars -- and left a passenger with two ticket halves that could still be used if travel dates were scheduled cleverly enough.

But with the proliferation of low, round-trip fares that don't require a Saturday night stay, "back-to-back ticketing" no longer saves money when flying to many cities.

Today, for instance, a traveler can fly round-trip anytime to a popular business destination, like Chicago, for under $200.

"The old days of round-trip being less than one-way are gone," said Ann Remington of Travel One. "The airlines finally got smart and realized what people are doing."

Now, a round-trip from Baltimore to San Francisco with Saturday night stay is $398, while the round-trip midweek is $678. So it no longer pays to buy two round-trip, excursion tickets for $796.

For traveling to smaller cities, however, "back-to-back ticketing" still saves money. A midweek round-trip from Baltimore to Rochester, N.Y., for instance is $538. But two round-trip excursion tickets can run as little as $200.

Historically, vacationers and other leisure travelers got the best airfares by staying over a Saturday night. Business people, on the other hand, travel primarily during the week. And "back-to-back ticketing," also known as "ticket splitting," has been a way to beat what many see as a discriminatory system.

"What other industry do you know that charges people who use it the most the highest fares?" Ms. Remington said.

While back-to-back ticketing is not illegal, it is strictly against airline regulations.

"Obviously it's a concern when the business travelers circumvent the rules," said Marty Hieres, a spokesman for American Airlines in Fort Worth, Texas. "It threatens to throw the entire fare structure out of balance."

To the financially struggling industry, which has lost $13 billion since 1989, it means further erosion of revenues. Higher midweek fares are the price businesses pay for frequent service and convenient schedules, he said.

Using their sophisticated computer systems, some airlines are starting to spot violators by tracking unused portions of tickets.

"Airlines are getting so uptight and the computers are so sophisticated you can't get away with anything," Ms. Remington said.

Airlines have warned travel agents not to write back-to-back tickets. If they do, airlines may issue debit memos requiring the agencies to pay the difference between the regular midweek fare and excursion fares on tickets issued to violators who are caught.

So far, however, airlines -- struggling to keep their customers happy in a intensely competitive world -- have been reluctant to go after passengers.

"We have not tried to collect additional ticket revenues from a passenger -- yet," Mr. Hieres said, "but that's always a possibility."

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