United joins after-holiday fare cutting

An expert fears public has become spoiled by cheap Web prices

December 31, 2003|By Melissa Allison | Melissa Allison,CHICAGO TRIBUNE

CHICAGO - U.S. airlines have launched their annual after-holiday sales, but at least one expert questioned the wisdom of such pricing for the carriers.

"These are extraordinarily attractive fares," said Joseph Schwieterman, a transportation expert at DePaul University in Chicago.

However, he added that it is becoming more difficult for major airlines to lure customers with such sales. "Everybody's conditioned to finding low fares on the Internet, and they have come to expect rock-bottom prices," he said.

Schwieterman also said that carriers - particularly mainline airlines - would build more loyalty if they offered more predictable, stable pricing. Low-cost carriers such as Southwest Airlines tend to have more consistent pricing, even when they offer discounts.

"Airlines need to walk away from these extreme discounts and simply lower capacity," he said.

Price stability could lead to higher revenues for airlines. Without the deep discounts, Schwieterman said, "many travelers would buy higher-fare trips sometime in the future."

United Airlines cut fares yesterday on tickets bought by Jan. 16 to cities around the world. One-way tickets from Chicago to Boston have fallen to $79; Chicago-to-Los Angeles fares dropped to $99; and Chicago-to-Dublin, Ireland, tickets are at $129.

As with most sales, the fares are available only if customers buy round-trip tickets and they include fees, taxes and certain limitations.

American Airlines cut its fares Monday to include one-way tickets from Chicago to Fort Lauderdale, Fla., as low as $136, and from Chicago to Aruba for $203.

Even Southwest Airlines, known for low prices on regular fares, is touting a sale to "help customers relax after the holidays by escaping to their favorite destination."

Southwest's deals are on sale through Jan. 19 for customers who book tickets on the Internet, and the fares - ranging from $39 to $139 for one-way tickets - vary depending on which days a customer travels.

Airline fare sales happen every year after the holidays, when people are least inclined to travel. The greater number of passengers make up for the lower prices.

"We feel like our fare sale will help fill empty seats during a season with typically low demand," said Tim Wagner, an American Airlines spokesman.

Martin White, head of marketing at United, adds that his airline also wants to encourage vacationers to fly, something leisure travelers have only recently begun doing again after the shock of Sept. 11.

Because vacationers are flying more often, United has begun to focus again on the leisure market. It recently launched routes to vacation spots including Grand Cayman, Mexico City and San Juan, Puerto Rico, from Chicago and Washington.

Consumers can expect more discounts during the year - typically for the summer and holiday travel seasons - but none as steep as the midwinter sale.

After Sept. 11, airlines began discounting fares for summer travel.

"Before Sept. 11, people booked far out. Since Sept. 11, they do not," said Darryl Jenkins, visiting professor of airline management at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Daytona Beach, Fla.

That means that in April the airlines "may get nervous and start testing different fares to see if it will pick up," he said.

The Chicago Tribune is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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