Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Airlines Scrambling to Fill Seats

Don't believe any media palaver you hear about the annual holiday travel crush and high fares. Airline executives are stunned by the extent of falloff in travel demand as the Christmas-New year's holidays loom. And they're discounting like crazy on select routes.

This is being written from San Francisco, where I flew nonstop from Newark on Saturday for less than $300 round-trip, in a 737 that was about half empty in coach. I looked online to change seats for my return home today, and that plane also appears to have about a third of its coach seats unsold. Even at the last minute, I easily snagged an exit-row aisle seat.

For travelers in a grim economy, there is good news. Sales are everywhere, but you have to seek them out with some sleuthing on the supplier sites and also on the third-party sites like Kayak, Farecompare, Expedia, Travelocity, Priceline, and others.

The key words are "select routes" because airlines have slashed capacity on so many routes that some planes to some destinations are still packed full.

But have a look at Southwest's current fare sale (through Dec. 21, for travel in the traditionally slow period of Jan. 6-March 11)) of $49 to $159 one-way on "select routes."

AirTran also has a new sale, with 14 days advance purchase. An example: Chicago-Orlando, $83 one-way, off-peak, with travel through March 11.

Yeah, I know airlines usually run fare sales for the slow season after New Year, but the extent of the discounting right now -- again, on on select routes -- is amazing.

It's especially true, by the way, for transatlantic travel, and particularly travel in business class. That risible $9,800 round-trip business-class fare between New York and London may still be posted, but it's a fiction. Business-class fares across the Atlantic are now being offered, with only small restrictions, at discounts below the levels even the more hard-nosed corporate travel managers used to be able to negotiate. That means in the $3,500 round-trip range and often significantly lower.

I've always argued that the best use of frequent-flier miles if you have a ton of them is upgrading to international business class, assuming the seat is available. Right now, the seat is probably available.

United Airlines, meanwhile, is now discounting its "economy plus" seats -- the ones up front in coach with 5 inches of extra legroom. They're 30 percent off when purchased through Thursday. (examples, $37 extra Los Angeles-Philadelpia, rather than $54. Or $104 extra Los Angeles-Sydney instead of $149).

I recently flew in United economy plus, and I have to say that the extra price (I think it was about $30 on a San Francisco-Tucson trip) was well worth it. I like getting the better seat without having to go through the craziness of the annual elite-status one-legged footrace to qualify for priority seating.

All I want in a coach seat is a little extra legroom, and the extra five inches that United offers effectively turns a cramped coach seat into something close enough to a domestic first-class seat. I don't need the food and free drinks. All I want it a little comfort without having to pay an extra $1,000 to get it.


No comments: