Welcome to Oz. This week, the great and powerful airlines have declared a fare war for fall travel.
But business travelers should pay no attention to the man behind the curtain. The wondrous fares he has pulled out of his bag--up to 45% off the cost of domestic travel--are available only to leisure travelers.
Business travelers who want to fly this fall are commanded to purchase full-fare tickets. The great and powerful airlines have spoken, and they speak the language of all modern-day wizards: a yellow brick maze of computer-generated restrictions designed to ensure business travelers don't qualify for those discounts.
Before explaining the dimensions of this week's fare war, it's interesting to take a look at the stakes. For travelers who can meet the restrictions, a round trip between Los Angeles and New York can be purchased for as little as $318. A round trip to Boston is going for $335. And a round-trip flight between Orange County and Detroit costs just $298.
But those are Munchkin prices. Business travelers live in the real world of unrestricted fares. In the real world, the airlines do a damned good imitation of the Wicked Witch of the West.
Say you have to fly to Kansas City on business next month. At the moment, unrestricted round-trip fares from LAX to Kansas City cost at least $638 and as much as $1,050. Chances are you'll be seated next to some vacation traveler named Dorothy. And since Dorothy probably bought her round-trip ticket during this week's fare war, she'll be flying home to visit Auntie Em for as little as $249.
But you're thinking: "Hey, I got a brain. There must be a way to outwit the great and powerful airlines. Surely I can fly on business for the same price as those leisure travelers."
Sorry to jolt you back to the black and white of the real world, but the great and powerful airlines have "yield management" computers. Yield management is airline jargon for "Let's make sure business travelers can't get the fares we advertise during the fare wars."
In the case of this week's price war, the computers have concocted 15 different restrictions that require more than 200 words of explanation.
The first and most important restrictions involve time. This week's discounts are available for travel until Dec. 16, but tickets much be purchased by midnight Friday. Most business travelers don't know where they might have to fly tomorrow, let alone know by Friday where they'll be next week, next month or November or December.
But say you do know where you have to be next Wednesday or--miracle of miracle--that you have figured out you've got to fly to Kansas City on Tuesday, Sept. 28.
Tough break. This week's discounted fares require you to buy tickets at least 14 days in advance.
So let's say you have the courage to reschedule that business trip to Kansas City for next month. Another big restriction: The airlines make the discounted tickets non-refundable. If your plans change and you no longer need to make that business trip to Kansas City, you've lost the price of the ticket.
The airlines also make sure you won't have too much time to change your mind. Should you choose to book a discounted fare today or tomorrow for business travel next month, you have to buy the ticket within 24 hours or lose the low fare.
Should you be adamant about trying to get one of these discount fares to Kansas City, the airlines have even more annoying restrictions to make your business life miserable. For example, the fares are valid only on the three days that are least convenient for business travelers to fly: Tuesday, Wednesday and Saturday.
Want to spend the weekend with your family? Then forget about flying to Kansas City on one of this week's discounted fares. The fares are also restricted by the dreaded "Saturday stay" rule.
By now you should be ready to give up your quest. And that's the point. The great and powerful airlines have spoken.