Cruising the Internet for airfares Computer: Every week, a few airlines offer some good deals in tickets, but not everyone is happy.

March 02, 1997|By Adam Bryant | Adam Bryant,NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

The growing use of the Internet for selling airfares has been compared to a revolution, supposedly as important as the dawn of the jet age in the late 1950s and airline deregulation in 1978.

Calling the trend a revolution may be an overstatement, but it has evolved rapidly, with many domestic airlines using the Internet's potential by offering discounts to computer users.

For the airlines, the Internet offers an inexpensive way to advertise fares to fill seats that generally go unsold for weekend travel. And there appears to be a big appetite for such discounts -- several airlines have signed up tens of thousands of subscribers within the last year.

Each week, the airlines that offer such fares -- including American, Northwest, Continental and USAir -- send out discounts for travel between certain cities to subscribers via electronic mail or post them on their World Wide Web computer sites.

The fares, which are typically about 75 percent less than 21-day advance purchase fares, are intended for spur-of-the-moment travel, as they are good only for the coming weekend.

The airlines say they generally change the list of cities each week. Although every airline's rules vary slightly, the fares are typically posted every Wednesday, and require leaving on a Friday or Saturday, returning on a Sunday, Monday or Tuesday.

American Airlines, for example, offered round-trip fares during the first weekend of February that ranged from about $69 to $189. A round trip between Dallas and La Guardia Airport in New York was $179; a New York to Boston round-trip ticket was $89. American also offers international fares, such as a $249 round trip between New York and London. The international fares are sent out on Mondays for departures on Thursday or Friday, and return flights the following Monday or Tuesday.

Not everyone is applauding the trend. Donald L. Pevsner, an attorney who describes himself as a consumer advocate on many aviation issues, filed a petition in January with the U.S. Department of Transportation. He said that the Internet-only fares represent "invidious discrimination" by airlines against consumers, like him, who do not own a computer. Pevsner said that when he calls an airline and requests its lowest available fare for a particular route and is not told about the Internet deals, that is discriminatory.

"The computer is a tool," Pevsner said in an interview. "It is not supposed to be some unfair edge."

The airline industry counters that use of the Internet is simply another way of distributing its product. The Transportation Department has not yet ruled on Pevsner's request. USAir, however, said that if travelers call a toll-free number, (888) 359-3728, and tell the airline which cities they are interested in flying between, the agent will check whether any of its discounts on the Internet are available. Travelers who have specific cities in mind can also ask agents at Continental's toll-free number, (800) 525-0280, whether any Internet fares are available that week. At American and Northwest, the fares are only for those who learn about them through the Internet.

Some of the largest airlines, including Delta and United, do not yet offer Internet-only fares. United said it is developing a system that subscribers can customize so that they receive special fares only for certain destinations.

Pub Date: 3/02/97

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