Airlines easing Saturday-night-stay rule

Strategies

March 21, 2004|By Barry Estabrook | Barry Estabrook,New York Times News Service

Normally, late spring weekends find Nancy Civetta out on Cape Cod visiting friends and family in the town of Wellfleet. But late last May, she had to waste a warm, sunny Sunday in an overcrowded departure lounge at San Francisco International Airport waiting for a badly delayed United Airlines flight.

Civetta, who owns a small public relations company in Cambridge, Mass., was a victim of the airline industry's dreaded Saturday-night stay-over rule. To get a reasonably priced ticket, she had to remain an extra night, even though the conference in Monterey she had flown out to attend ended Friday evening.

"Without a Saturday-night stay, the round-trip ticket would have cost more than $700," Civetta said. "With the stay, it was only $435. I'm a small-business person, and a couple of hundred dollars really does mean something to me."

When Civetta went to book the same trip this year, she was surprised to see that United was offering a round-trip fare of $221. Better yet, it required no Saturday-night stay, no need to pay for an extra night in a hotel and a couple of meals.

Such pleasant surprises are becoming more common for travelers as airlines begin to abandon the weekend-night stay rule. In mid-February, Alaska Airlines dropped the requirement for its least expensive advance-purchase tickets on all its flights. America West eliminated the regulation two years ago. And discount carriers like Air Tran, Jet Blue and Southwest never applied the rule in the first place.

"From Denver west, the Saturday-night stay is dead, for all practical purposes," said Terry Trippler, airfare specialist with Cheapseats.com. "Over the next few months, I predict the trend is going to move east. The Saturday-night stay rule could well be extinct before this summer."

Although the primary beneficiaries of the new policies will be business travelers, Trippler said, the changes would also have a major impact on pleasure travelers. "It's going to give the leisure traveler more options," he said. "Vacationers will be able to take advantage of midweek deals at resorts."

"We knew that our corporate customers would appreciate the new pricing system," said Donald Garvett, vice president of planning and revenue for Alaska Airlines, which is based in Seattle. "But the response has been at least as loud from leisure customers."

According to Garvett, last year, before the new fare structure was introduced, a one-way unrestricted ticket on Alaska Airlines between Newark, N.J., and Seattle cost $1,209. Early this month, the same ticket cost only $419.

"We concluded that the airline pricing system was broken," he said. "What other business charges different customers five or even eight times more than others for a very similar -- I won't say identical -- product?"

America West Airlines, which competes on several routes with Alaska, removed its Saturday-night stay requirements two years ago. "We've had three profitable quarters in a row," said Janice Monahan, a spokeswoman for America West.

Bigger airlines have been slower to change, but some major airlines are beginning to adjust their policies in the face of competition.

"It's more of a trend than people realize," said Bob Harrell, president of Harrell Associates, a New York-based airline consulting company that specializes in ticket pricing.

"American and Delta are definitely doing it in markets where they compete directly with Air Tran. But they are doing it on a flight-by-flight basis, not systemwide."

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