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Lowest Fares Chart's Higher Purpose: To Be Your Guide

Flights: With airline prices fluctuating daily and early publishing deadlines, the Statistics page provides direction, not guarantees.

February 18, 1996|CHRISTOPHER REYNOLDS | TIMES TRAVEL WRITER

There it is in this very travel section's "lowest fares" chart--a great low price on a flight to Hawaii, or New York or Florida. So you call. But when you reach the airline, the reservations agent tells you that fare doesn't exist. What gives?

There is no feature inside this travel section that consistently attracts closer reader attention or inspires more perplexity, than does that air fare chart on our Travel Statistics page. We established the chart in the 1980s after the deregulation of the airline industry led to widely fluctuating fares. Our goal was to give readers an idea of the latest, lowest rates for flights from Southern California.

But there are two built-in drawbacks to the chart, and no matter how we try to emphasize those drawbacks with bold-faced explanatory notes above the fare numbers, many readers nevertheless end up confused or downright angry. Hence today's column.

The fare figures fluctuate not only widely but daily, and often rise and fall without warning as airlines jostle for competitive advantage. We get our numbers from American Express Skyguide, which gets them from the airlines via the Sabre computer-reservation system. (This is the same system from which thousands of travel agents get their numbers.)

About the chart's two big drawbacks:

One is restrictions. The cheapest fares usually require a traveler to stay over a Saturday and to buy tickets seven or 14 or 21 days in advance, and there often are other stipulations as well. For instance, to get the $288 LAX-New York round-trip fare on America West Airlines that we listed last Sunday, a traveler was required to buy seven days in advance, stay over a Saturday, and to leave LAX on a red-eye flight that departed at 11 p.m., stopped in Las Vegas and arrived in New York at 8:11 a.m. The traveler was also required to return on a 9:05 p.m. New York departure, stop in Las Vegas, and arrive at LAX at 1:34 a.m.

Through such requirements and simply by restricting the number of seats they make available, airlines keep tight limits on lowest-rate seats. Industry insiders decline to give specific numbers, but acknowledge that despite the prominent advertising of low fares, sometimes as few as 10% of the coach seats on a flight are sold at the lowest rate.

It's the second drawback in our chart, however, that leads to the most perplexity: timeliness. Because of the newspaper's printing schedule, the most up-to-date figures we can print are those that were in effect on the Tuesday before our Sunday publication date. The newspaper's production schedules call for the Travel section to be printed on Wednesdays--thereby giving news sections the flexibility to cover late-breaking events.

Here's an example of what that can lead to. On Tuesday, Jan. 9, our researchers found a big bargain fare to Honolulu: Five airlines, including Delta, Continental and Northwest were offering restricted fares of $186. So we printed it. But by Friday the 12th, all five airlines had dropped the fare, and when the Travel section came out on Sunday the 14th, readers started calling airlines, and there was much unhappiness.

We hate it when that happens.

One day last week, posing as a ordinary traveler, I called five airline reservation lines, and checked out fares from the most recent chart. All were still available--in fact, one had dropped a few dollars more. But in each conversation, I asked why fares in the Times' charts sometimes aren't unavailable. All the operators were familiar with the problem. Three noted that ticket availability is limited, and said the fares could have sold out. One operator knowledgeably explained how the newspaper got its information several days in advance. But two said more discouraging things.

"That's never right anyway," said a USAir operator.

"I've wondered about that," said a Delta operator. "I get calls from travelers like you from all over the country. I don't know if [the newspapers] are putting wrong information in the chart, or they're mixing up the airlines, or what."

So why run the chart? Because readers tell us they would rather have some potentially useful fare information than none. The key is to recognize the numbers as a guide and not a guarantee.

Whether you're working from our chart or not, here are a few tips to keep in mind when seeking the best possible fare from an airline reservations agent:

Don't give your travel dates right away, even though the reservations agent is likely to ask for them. Instead, tell the reservations agent that you're flexible on flight dates, and that you first want to know what the current lowest possible fare is and what restrictions apply.

Once you know the best fare available, find out how widely that fare differs from the prices on your preferred travel date. Then, in choosing a travel date, balance the savings against convenience.

Another option, of course, is to ask around among friends until you find a shrewd and trustworthy travel agent. Using a computer reservation system, that agent can sift through all airlines' fares at one time, saving you the trouble of multiple phone calls or online meandering.

Reynolds travels anonymously at the newspaper's expense, accepting no special discounts or subsidized trips. To reach him, write Travel Insider, Los Angeles Times, Times Mirror Square, Los Angeles 90053; telephone 213-237-7845.

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