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Flying First-Class at a Coach Price

September 01, 1993|JOE BRANCATELLI | Joe Brancatelli is a business travel writer based in New York

It is the oldest complaint in the business-travel book: Since executive travelers usually fly with little or no advance notice, they inevitably pay outrageously inflated full coach fares and end up squeezed into the middle seat between two vacationing little old ladies from Pasadena.

Of course, the vagaries of American commerce pretty much ensure that executive travelers will always fly at the last moment. And the pricing strategies of the major airlines, which assume that business people will pay top dollar because they must fly, pretty much dictate that executive travelers will always pay unrestricted full coach fares.

But sit in the middle seat? In coach? That, at least, needn't be the case. Hoping to break the near monopoly of the Big Three carriers--United, American and Delta now combine to carry about 60% of the nation's traffic--four smaller airlines gladly upgrade executive travelers to first-class when they pay the full coach fare.

Because these airlines--TWA, Northwest, Continental and America West--do not have the colossal marketing clout or huge advertising budgets of the major carriers, the upgrade programs are just this side of a secret. But they do exist, and executive travelers can take full advantage of them with a minimum of planning.

Say you have to fly from LAX to Raleigh-Durham, N.C. American Airlines routes you through its crowded hub at Chicago's O'Hare Airport and charges a full-coach, one-way fare of $662. But TWA, which flies travelers through Lambert Field in St. Louis, offers a fare called "YFirst." For the same $662 American charges for a coach seat, TWA allows you to reserve a first-class seat to Raleigh-Durham.

Continental's upgrade system, called the "A fare," is available on virtually every nonstop and connecting route in its system. On a flight between Ontario and Omaha, Neb., for example, Continental routes travelers through Denver and confirms first-class seats for the A-fare price of $525. United also flies Ontario-Omaha via Denver, but $525 buys only a coach seat.

Northwest calls its upgrade program "Up-Front," and it works in much the same way as the TWA and Continental plans. On a flight from LAX to Buffalo, N.Y., for example, Delta routes passengers through Cincinnati and charges $662 one way for a seat in the back of the bus. But using the Up-Front fare on Northwest, which flies LAX-Buffalo via its Detroit hub, executive travelers pay the same $662 but sit in the front cabin.

America West's program has no formal name, but its upgrade fares are usually coded "YUP6" in the reservation computers used by airlines and travel agents. One example: American charges $619 one way for a coach seat on a flight between Long Beach and Columbus, Ohio, via Dallas-Ft. Worth. Fly America West through its Phoenix hub, and the $619 buys a confirmed seat in first-class.

Valid mostly on domestic connecting flights, these upgrade programs are about as good a deal as they seem to be; there's very little in the way of fine print. In fact, restrictions are rarely more severe than Continental's requirement that you join OnePass, its lavish--and free--frequent-flier program.

If anything, the upgrade plans are hamstrung only by the sponsoring airlines' own limitations: Since they are smaller carriers, their route networks and flight schedules aren't as comprehensive as the Big Three's. And, of course, first-class cabins are much smaller than coach cabins; the available seats may have already been taken by other travelers who've beaten you to the free upgrade.

In their ardor to woo executive travelers from the major airlines by offering no-cost upgrades, the smaller carriers have even anticipated potential objections from the penny-pinching travel managers who police corporate travel policies.

Most companies officially prohibit first-class travel, and travel managers snag offending fliers by searching for the telltale "F" code imprinted on standard first-class tickets. But since the upgrade programs are based on full coach fares, no such code appears anywhere on an upgraded ticket.

In other words, companies pay no more than the usual coach fare, business fliers get to relax in a first-class seat, and corporate bean counters are none the wiser.

Travel Tips The 400-room Holiday Inn Union Square in San Francisco has completed an extensive renovation. The hotel has enlarged its lobby, business center and meeting space and has opened a fitness center. Guest rooms have been refurbished and offer 25-inch televisions and work desks. Room rates are $109 through Sept. 30.

American Airlines and British Midland, a regional European carrier, have formed a code-sharing alliance. American Airlines passengers flying to London's Heathrow Airport will be able to immediately connect to BM flights serving Amsterdam, Brussels and Glasgow. Pending government approval, the alliance takes effect Oct. 1.

Aloha Airlines has introduced drive-through check-in at its new terminal at Honolulu International Airport. Passengers flying Aloha to Hawaii's neighboring islands can check bags and receive boarding passes before parking their cars.

Guests of Hotel Macklowe, a slick hotel, theater and conference center in midtown Manhattan, now receive an amenity rare for New York: complimentary transportation to the Wall Street financial district.

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