One of my friends, ever the bargain hunter, was among the first to buy one of those new, non-refundable, deeply discounted air fares, dubbed MaxSaver by their originators, Continental and Eastern, and matched by just about everybody else.
Knowing she has a tendency to buy now and think later, I immediately warned her that, having impulsively bought the ticket, she'd better be prepared to travel as planned or lose her investment.
"Oh," she told me with a nonchalant wave of the hand, "they're not really non-refundable. The airlines would never dare to refuse to give you your money back . . . bad PR, you see."
Lest anybody else think of making the same mistake . . . "bad PR" or not, the tickets are non-refundable. That's the risk you have to run to take advantage of what really are the deepest airline price cuts in many a year.
Outdoes Super Saver
MaxSavers weigh in at about 80% below regular coach. They carry a two-day advance purchase restriction, and require round-trip travel and an overnight Saturday stay.
The principal industry discount until now has been the so-called Super Saver, which offers a smaller price break.
The biggest difference between them, though, is not in the price paid. It is that Super Saver entails a 50% cancellation penalty in the event that the passenger cannot fly in the seat purchased.
With MaxSaver, you take the MaxRisk . . . 100% loss of payment if you can't go.
In fairness, I should point out that there are occasional exceptions to the non-refundability stipulation. Pan Am, for example, will refund the full price if the passenger dies before completing his or her travel.
I don't know why, but somehow that doesn't give me a whole lot of comfort.
MaxSavers will be offered throughout the nation on a capacity-controlled basis. In other words, not every seat on every flight will be available at that rate; Friday and Saturday departures, for example, will cost a little more.
Many Seats Available
But there will be a lot. Continental has said that it will offer 2 million seats a month through May 20. And its Texas Air Corps. affiliate, Eastern, has about 1 million a month.
That represents about 40% of Continental's total "lift" systemwide and just a little less for Eastern. United, American, TWA and the others aren't saying how many MaxSavers they'll put on the market, but you can bet that the number will be very "elastic" depending on the anticipated demand for higher-priced tickets on any given flight.
Don't look for 40% of every Continental flight to be open to MaxSaver buyers. The number set aside will vary from segment to segment.
In some markets, the airline expects almost two-thirds of the seats on some flights to be occupied by users of the new discount, on others not more than 20%.
Some of the prices available as a result of MaxSaver really are rather attractive. Consider: $178 round trip, Los Angeles-New York.
That's exactly the fair I paid last time I flew from Los Angeles to San Francisco and back. It would be nice to think that I could get an 80% discount off that next time, but I doubt it; Continental and Eastern don't have any impact on the L.A.-San Francisco market. And why should United, PSA, AirCal and the rest get into a fare war when they don't need to?
Back to Square One
The severity of the MaxSaver cuts has dismayed some airline people. They come just at a time when it looked as if fare wars were receding and the carriers would be able to settle down to increase their yields.
Now, it's back to square one.
One of the early problems with the new rate structure was that it attracted so much business that some reservations systems couldn't respond as fast as they normally do. Travel agents' CRTs often flashed the message "Try again in two minutes" when trying to confirm MaxSaver spaces.
Gradually, though, the initial rush died down and things seem to be back to normal.
I doubt that we'll ever know how much the airlines will make from passengers who have to cancel. But I suspect that it will mount fast, starting with $178 from my friend.
She doesn't have any reason or desire to go to New York in March, whatever the price, but even now, she probably doesn't believe that she isn't going to get her money back.