Searching for a cheap airline seat? The Internet site http://www.hotwire.com, launched last week, is the latest source to check. This Web site is co-owned by the airlines themselves.
The site delivers "unpublished, proprietary fares"--that is, those not available on computerized reservation systems tapped by travel agents and Internet search engines--that are "aggressively discounted," Hotwire CEO Karl Peterson said last week. He added that the fares are generally competitive with last-minute "e-fares" posted by individual airlines (usually on Wednesdays, for travel on the weekend). But the site allows one-stop shopping for more fares and will accept bookings nearly a year in advance, he said.
Visitors to the site can specify the dates of travel, number of en-route stops they'll accept and whether they'll take a late-night flight. The site then posts a fare, and customers have 30 minutes to decide whether to accept it. They don't learn the airline or the exact flight times until after purchase. Not all airlines are on the site. The partner-owners are American, America West, Continental, Northwest, United and U.S. Airways, plus Texas Pacific Group.
Advantages for consumers: The site may have fares other sites don't, and, unlike online auctioneer Priceline.com, purchase is not automatic. Disadvantages: You can't specify an airline, and some major ones--notably low-fare Southwest Airlines--are excluded.