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There's a Painful Catch to Those Discount Fares

September 07, 1986|PETER S. GREENBERG | Greenberg is a Los Angeles free-lance writer.

Want a discount fare between Los Angeles and New York? A round-trip ticket will cost you as little as $278. How about the fares between Buffalo and Chicago? Yes, there are discount seats on these flights, too; a round-trip discount fare costs $108.

The highly discounted, or Q fares, exist on dozens of other runs. Some examples: For only $218 you can fly between Dallas and San Francisco, between Denver and Pittsburgh or between St. Louis and Miami.

The good travel news is that, with few exceptions, discount air fares are still very much with us. Most airlines are still pushing them, as summer travel statistics did not live up to expectations, and fall passenger volume also promises to be slow.

If you've traveled on discount fares, you know the rules: You must book and pay for your tickets at least 14 or 30 days in advance (depending upon the market and the fare offered).

But now there's an additional, and often quite painful catch: Almost all Q fares carry a stiff penalty if you change the ticket once you've bought it.

Stiff Penalties

As a result, a lot of travelers are paying much more for their tickets than they'd bargained for. In some cases the penalties are so stiff--between 25% and 50% of the original cost of the ticket--that some passengers are forfeiting their flights altogether.

For example, if a passenger changes his flight plans after buying a $278 Q fare ticket on TWA from Los Angeles to New York, the penalty assessed for changes would be an additional $139. If he changes his plans for his return flight from New York once he's flown there, he's in worse shape: His return ticket is now worthless, and he may have to pay as much as the full coach one-way fare of $490 to fly home.

Consider the plight of Marilyn Bart, a retired schoolteacher who lives in Northridge, Calif., and her daughter, Leslie.

Leslie was scheduled to receive her doctorate in industrial psychology from Ohio State University. Marilyn Bart and six other family members all planned to attend the degree ceremony in Columbus. They booked their Q discount fares more than a month in advance at a cost of nearly $2,000.

"But we were told that Leslie wouldn't know officially about the Ph.D. until her dissertation was accepted," Bart said, "and that won't be until two weeks before the ceremony. If it's not accepted now, then Leslie won't get her degree until December. If we have to cancel our reservations the penalty from TWA is 50%, or almost $1,000. It's unfair, unreasonable and unconscionable."

Growing 'No Shows'

The airlines argue that the penalty fees may not always be fair or reasonable, but they have become a financial necessity. Officials point to a growing "no-show" percentage on their flights, passengers who book seats but don't show for the flights. On some heavily traveled routes, supposedly sold-out flights have often left the departure gate only half filled.

The financial ramifications can be great. American Airlines has estimated the value of its "spoiled" seats--seats for which reservations were made but which were not filled--at more than $27 million. TWA estimates annual spoiled-seat losses at more than $100 million.

"Once it leaves empty, you've lost it. You can never recover that revenue."

Now the airlines are trying to recover at least a part of it.

In the process, they're angering a growing number of discount-fare passengers.

"We're getting a lot of complaints about these penalty fees," said Con Hitchcock, legal director for the Aviation Consumer Action Project (ACAP), a nonprofit watchdog group based in Washington.

"The cornerstone of deregulation," Hitchcock said, "is that there would be more competition in the industry, and as a result there would be more choices for the consumer."

Hitchcock is right. Unfortunately, in producing more airlines, airline seats and more choices, deregulation has also created fewer full airplanes. Hence the penalty charges.

Cancellation Insurance

Special flight cancellation insurance plans are being marketed by travel agents. But most such insurance only covers passengers if the flight itself cancels, or if the tour operator who booked the flight goes bankrupt. No insurance policy covers losses in the event a passenger has to change his plans.

However, if your flight plans on a discount ticket have to be changed because of a medical emergency that affects you or a member of your immediate family, most flight cancellation insurance will reimburse you for any penalty fees.

But most airlines will waive the cancellation penalties when presented with a letter from your physician at the time you check in for your flight.

There are those who claim that the no-show statistics presented by the airlines to justify these fees are misleading and that the penalty fees are being used as a means of generating additional revenue.

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