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Executive Travel | ON THE MOVE / KAREN SCHWARTZ

With Dash to Atlanta, Frequent Fliers Should Avoid the Southeast

Airlines: Summer Olympic Games are forcing many intent on using award miles to alter their travel plans.

May 29, 1996|KAREN SCHWARTZ | Karen Schwartz writes for the Associated Press

Go West, young man. Or North. Or even to Hawaii. Just don't even think about using your frequent-flier points to go to the hot spots in the Southeast this summer.

"There's a bottleneck caused by the Olympics, with Atlanta being a hub city," said Randy Petersen, editor and publisher of InsideFlyer.

"People are flying into Tallahassee and renting cars" to drive to Atlanta, he said. "That whole area has been glutted by the over-popularity of the Olympics."

But there is a silver lining.

"It's actually making award seats to the Northwest much easier to get," Petersen said.

At Delta Air Lines, travel through Atlanta, one of the airline's four hubs and the third-busiest airport in the world, is blacked out for regular-level frequent-flier members July 17 through Aug. 6. The games are running July 19 through Aug. 4 and are expected to attract about 2 million visitors.

But, said Delta spokeswoman Jackie Tate, if you have the points, you can get around the blackout by redeeming 50,000 frequent-flier points instead of the usual 25,000 points.

And that trend extends beyond just bookings for the busy Southeast. More and more passengers are cashing in extra points to get on flights to other heavily traveled parts of the country.

That's just what Christian Super had to do when he flew from Los Angeles to New Orleans on United Airlines for the Mother's Day weekend. Calling only 10 days before he wanted to fly, he found no seats left for 25,000 frequent-flier points, so he flew first class for 40,000 points and was able to go on the Friday and return Sunday.

"You can't always get exactly what you want, but there are certainly seats available," said Super, vice president of information systems for ASI Market Research in Glendale.

Petersen said overall, this summer is much like any other. If anything, he said, last summer was worse because many airlines raised the number of points needed for a free ticket from 20,000 to 25,000 and many people were scrambling to use up their points.

His magazine did a spot-check of the availability of seats earlier this month by calling the 12 major frequent-flier programs and requesting award seats for travel between July 15 and October.

The only problem they found was flying from New York to London on TWA and Continental.

"This time of the year there's always a mad rush of people thinking they can go to Europe," Petersen said. "Close to 70% are already booked up, with London being pretty much sold out through mid-July in terms of award seats. It's probably a good year to go to Hawaii. Not many people want to go to Hawaii in July."

Steven R. Ricchiuto, chief financial economist at Barclays de Zoete Wedd Securities Inc. in New York, called United Airlines three weeks ago and booked four frequent-flier seats to Hawaii for a trip in early August. He got the dates he wanted, but not the departure times.

Petersen suggests one reason people have been so frustrated this year is they aren't veteran travelers familiar with the nuances of the frequent-flier programs. Instead, they earned their free tickets by accumulating points through credit cards, telephone perks, dining programs and a variety of other earthbound pursuits.

"You have a new generation of people who are not seasoned frequent fliers taking advantage of their awards for the first time," he said. "They aren't used to flexible schedules and planning three to six months in advance."

Airlines allocate a certain number of seats per flight that can be redeemed by frequent fliers. The number of seats can vary from flight to flight and airline to airline. The percentage of total seats used for awards last year ranged from 2.6% (America West) to 9.1% (United), Petersen said.

In all, industry officials estimate that the number of unused miles has jumped 30% since 1991, and the total number of frequent-fliers members has swelled to 38 million, from 28 million just two years ago. The number of free seats airlines set aside has grown from 4% of capacity to about 7%, still not enough to meet the demand.

Bill Dreslin, an American Airline spokesman, said frequent-flier seats are available on most domestic routes, as well as Hawaii and the Caribbean.

But, he warned, think before you book a trip to the Southeast.

"It's not just a matter of frequent-flier seats," Dreslin said. "You can't get a hotel room or anything else."

Karen Schwartz writes for the Associated Press. If you have experiences to share or suggestions for Executive Travel, please write: Executive Travel Editor, Business Editorial, Los Angeles Times, Times Mirror Square, Los Angeles, CA 90053, fax (213) 237-7837 or e-mail to business@latimes.com

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

Snagging a Seat

Summer and holidays are the most difficult time to use frequent-flier miles for free seats. Some tips if you want to use miles this summer:

* Book as far in advance of the travel date as possible.

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