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A Changing of Course for Charters

March 23, 1986|JERRY BROWN | Brown is a Santa Monica free-lance writer

You know you're getting old if policemen have started to look young to you, if teen-agers call you "sir" or "ma'am" and . . . if you were once a passenger on an affinity charter flight.

Remember affinities? They were, for awhile, the only kind of charters allowed. They peaked in the 1960s and early '70s when regular air fares were high and hundreds of thousands of travel-hungry Americans and expatriates, especially Europeans, craved a lower-cost alternative.

The government's answer was affinities. It didn't seem to dawn on our regulators that the way they were written, affinity rules were an open invitation to fly-by-night entrepreneurs to have a field day, bringing in foreign airlines with unrecognizable names and, sometimes, all but unrecognizable aircraft.

The Many Problems

Cultural and social clubs with absolutely no cultural or social function . . . phony, backdated membership credentials . . . CAB enforcement officers not fooled by these phony credentials . . . passengers being stranded . . . cancelled flights . . . delays of 8, 10, 20 hours . . . those things were very much part and parcel of the affinity era.

They may not have been the good old days, but they sure were interesting.

Unfortunately, they left a bad taste in the mouths of many people, long after the affinity concept had been supplanted by far more liberal charter regulations open to the general public.

The taste lingers. There are still those who equate "charter" with "tacky," "substandard" and "unreliable."

Think again. The charter industry may not be as big as it was. We give thanks for that. But it's still active and its practitioners tend to be a darned sight more trustworthy than many of those operating two decades ago.

The Economic Reasons

Why fly charter? First and foremost, of course, the reason is economics. Charters still represent a less-expensive airline seat than is available on scheduled airlines, generally speaking.

The price differential that used to be charters' big selling point doesn't exist to the same extent, especially when you figure in all of the bulk fare deals and special arrangements some of the major carriers have made with selected agents around town. But when you get down to looking for those so-called "special" fares, watch out! Not all of them are officially sanctioned and not all of them are legal.

Another selling point that charters have is financial security for the passenger. All money paid to charter operators goes directly into a tight escrow account and is only released after the services contracted for have been provided. Name a scheduled airline that offers you that same guarantee.

Sound Operations

Mind you, one of the big pluses about the charter industry right now is that you hardly need that kind of safeguard. The airlines involved are among the best backed, financially, in the world.

Condor, a subsidiary of Lufthansa . . . British Airtours, a division of British Airways . . . Iberia, Spain's national carrier . . . Transamerica, a name that needs no introduction in this country . . . Martinair, of Holland . . . these, and many more, are the kinds of airlines now in the business of operating charters.

Late model 747s, DC-10s and L-1011s have replaced the beat-up old 707s and stretch-8s that were so common. What charters have become, in effect, is simply scheduled services carrying charter passengers.

Take the Los Angeles company now operating as Dollar Stretchers. It used to be known as Intercontinental Navigation.

The name changed when Inter-continental Navigation became a subsidiary of British Airways. Dollar Stretcher, one of a series--Franc Stretcher in France, Mark Stretcher in Germany and so on--is offering a two-a-week Los Angeles-London/Manchester schedule on British Airtours 747s.

The planes leave from Bradley International Terminal Tuesdays and Thursdays, May 6 through Oct. 16. The Tuesday flight goes non-stop to Manchester, then on to London Gatwick, and the Thursday flight goes non-stop to Gatwick. All of the return flights, for technical reasons, stop in Toronto en route.

The round trip costs $599 in May and October, $699 in the first two weeks of June and in September and $699 the rest of the summer. These fares will come in $150 or so below the lowest Super Apex scheduled fare . . . the lowest publicly filed, that is.

Extra Goodies

But in addition to lower fares, Dollar Stretcher is offering its passengers a parcel of goodies aimed at saving them still more money. There is, for example, a voucher good for $7.50 or so off any purchase in the duty-free shop at Gatwick, a flight bag, a booklet containing coupons worth $50 or so in price reductions at participating establishments in Britain and a coupon good for a 25% discount off a Hertz rental car.

You think charter operators aren't working to retain their share of the market?

These flights are guaranteed. So are the departures of another, even bigger, charter operator, DER Tours, in Westwood.

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