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L.A.-to-S.F. Fares Rise as Airlines Cut Back Flights

Despite post-Sept. 11 drop in traffic, carriers are not wooing passengers with lower prices on the popular route.

November 25, 2001|JANE ENGLE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Bargain hunters, beware: The current turbulence in air travel is not always working in your favor.

A case in point is the much-traveled route between Los Angeles and San Francisco. Despite a slump in passenger traffic and profits in the U.S. airline industry, fares between LAX and San Francisco International Airport recently increased to their highest level in a year, by one measure.

In late October and early November, the lowest advance-purchase published fare on United for the route was $81 one way, according to Bob Harrell of Harrell Associates, a New York-based company that tracks air fares through the database that supplies computerized reservation systems used by travel agents. That figure was 65% higher than the lowest fare, $49, for the same period last year. In fact, it was the highest fare in a year (except for four weeks starting Aug. 20, when the fare also hit $81 before dropping to $66, Harrell says).

Those figures, of course, represent the rock bottom of published fares, with limited availability and many restrictions, such as advance purchase and Saturday stays. Last-minute travelers usually pay much more. Just ask Helen Yuan, an executive assistant at East West Bank, which is based in San Marino and has five branches in the Bay Area. She recently ran up against a $395 round-trip fare while trying to book a staff member to San Francisco with about two days' notice.

By comparison, the lowest one-way advance-purchase fares on Southwest Airlines to the Oakland and San Jose airports varied from $39 to $59 in late October and early November, according to Harrell.

What gives?

Let's look back to Oct. 31. That's when United, which typically carries about three-fourths of the roughly 2.5 million air passengers traveling between LAX and SFO each year, debuted its slimmed-downed schedule. As part of a nationwide cutback in response to the downturn in air travel after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, it eliminated its United Shuttle brand, which served the LAX-SFO route among others, cutting some flights and folding others into United and United Express schedules.

As a result, there were suddenly 17 instead of 33 nonstop United flights each day from LAX to SFO. Overall from Southern California, there were about 40% fewer United flights to SFO, as a result of other cuts from the Burbank, Orange County (John Wayne) and Ontario airports.

And just about then, LAX-SFO air fares jumped. Coincidence?

"We never comment on fares," says Chris Brathwaite, spokesman for United in Chicago, when asked why fares are up. He also declined to talk about how full United's planes are on the route except to say "we're matching up our service with demand."

He did refer me to "all the sales on our Web site," http://www.ual.com. (I took his suggestion and spotted, for instance, a $91 round-trip LAX-SFO fare on Nov. 9 for travel on Dec. 6, returning on Dec. 10, the traditionally slow period between Thanksgiving and Christmas.)

In general, "there's no question that fares would go up as capacity is cut," as a function of supply and demand, Harrell says.

Other likely factors in the rise, observers suggest, include low-fare Southwest Airlines' pullout from San Francisco last spring (it still flies to Oakland and San Jose from Southern California) and a gradual return to the skies by travelers. (By early November passenger traffic overall at SFO had rebounded to about 80% of last year's level, says spokesman Ron V. Wilson.)

Nationwide, fares in early November were off an average of 10% from a year ago, Harrell reports. But that figure masks wide differences among routes. From LAX to New York, fares were down 28%; they rose from LAX to Seattle (5%), Chicago (10%) and Atlanta (17%), he found.

With all this variation and traveler uncertainty, there is sharp disagreement about whether skyrocketing SFO fares are a taste of things to come.

Expect higher leisure fares overall in 2002 as airlines, drubbed by the drop-off in business travel, try to make more money from pleasure travelers as part of a long-term restructuring of fares, says airline expert Terry Trippler, president of Trippler & Associates in Minneapolis.

But Harrell, noting that "leisure fares jump around tremendously," suggests that "if you wait around long enough, you'll see a $60 or even $40 [one-way] fare" on the route again, especially if consumers refuse to pay the higher fare.

Meanwhile, here are some strategies for price-conscious fliers to the Bay Area:

* Fly into Oakland or San Jose, where fares are generally lower. That's how Yuan says she's been end-running high SFO fares when booking flights for staff at East West Bank. The Oakland airport is only a little farther from San Francisco than is SFO (about 19 miles versus 14 miles), and if you're driving to points north, you may be able to make a less traffic-congested getaway. During off-peak hours, it may take about an hour to drive from the San Jose airport to San Francisco--not much longer than the drive from SFO.

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