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You'll pay the price if you're still living in the paper-ticket age

Airlines have been steadily raising fees for passengers who don't make use of the Web and other technology.

June 08, 2003|Jane Engle | Times Staff Writer

As it has every year since 1997, Southwest Airlines last week renewed a promotion that allows customers who book on its Web site to earn a Rapid Rewards ticket after four round trips.

Those who book by any other means require eight round trips for their freebie.

Southwest's promotion is one of the oldest, but not the only, example of ways in which a technophobic air traveler is placed at a disadvantage.

In recorded phone messages, major airlines typically say you may find lower fares on their Web site. And tech-heads can bypass long lines at ticket counters by checking in for flights at airport kiosks or from home on the Web.

Now a slew of fees is making it even costlier to do business with the airlines by phone or in person or to get a paper ticket. Among the disincentives:

* Award travel: Northwest Airlines earlier this year began charging a $50 service fee when customers change award tickets, unless they use its Web site or its self-service airport kiosks to do so. Then it's free, if done at least 30 days before travel, or $25 if it's less than 30 days.

On July 1, Air Canada will begin charging its frequent fliers $25 Canadian (about $18 U.S.) to book award travel through a reservations agent. Online booking is free, at least until the end of the year.

* City ticket offices: If you prefer to do business face to face, you'll need to pay for that personal attention at Continental Airlines.

The company in April began a $10 service charge per transaction when customers visit its city ticket offices -- neighborhood satellite airline counters -- to buy tickets or to make changes in tickets for which change fees are not assessed.

The fee is waived for purchases made on Continental's Web site or at its airport ticket counters.

Continental says the fee "is competitive and in line with those charged by most travel agencies."

In fact it's less than many travel agents charge.

Left unsaid: Continental, like most major airlines, stopped paying regular commissions to travel agents a little more than a year ago, prompting many agents to add or increase service fees.

The real challenge may be finding a city ticket office. Continental closed six such offices, including two in Los Angeles, earlier this year and plans to close six more by the end of this month. Thirty-five will remain open. Closures have been an industry trend since at least 2001, when the majors shuttered more than 160 city ticket offices.

* Paper tickets: American Airlines last month stopped issuing paper tickets on domestic itineraries that are eligible for e-tickets. Paper tickets continue to be available through travel agents for a fee, which was increased from $25 to $50, or from American for international travel for the same fee.

The paper-ticket fee increase is designed to "maximize the cost savings associated with e-ticketing," the company says. In the view of Richard M. Copland, president of the American Society of Travel Agents, the airline is "shifting its costs directly to the consumer."

The increase means the airline's fee is five times what it was two years ago, when American and Continental began charging. (About the same time, Alaska Airlines increased its paper-ticket fee from $10 to $20.) As recently as December 2001, most major airlines didn't have such a fee. Now it's commonplace.

Most of these new fees are part of a carrot-and-stick approach to get more customers to embrace technology. The carrots, of course, are extra frequent-flier points and other perks awarded for online bookings, plus cheaper Web fares. Whether the Internet consistently produces lower fares is the subject of contradictory studies, although it clearly does so some of the time.

For cash-strapped airlines, the motive for migrating to the Web is mainly money, although their representatives also point to customer convenience. Direct Web bookings let airlines reduce staff or reserve them for more complicated inquiries and get rid of the middlemen and associated expenses.

"Airlines continue to drive as much of their total sales as possible through the Internet to reduce costs," the U.S. Department of Transportation said in a report last year.

Southwest, which says in 1995 it was the first major airline to establish a home page on the Internet, has been a leader in direct Web bookings. This year more than half its tickets are being booked at its site, www.southwest.com, compared with a quarter three years ago, spokeswoman Whitney Eichinger said.

The percentages are lower for most other airlines. About a third of air ticket sales this year to leisure and "unmanaged" business travelers (those who don't use the corporate travel agency) will be through either the airlines' own Web sites or those of third-party sellers such as Expedia and Travelocity, according to a forecast by Jupiter Research, a technology research firm based in Darien, Conn.

Clearly the figure is destined to increase; it's already up 6% from last year.

That's not good news for the 46% of Americans who aren't online. Such people are, on average, poorer than Internet users, the U.S. Commerce Department reported last year -- and so are more affected by added fees.

But even the Net literate can get caught in the disadvantages of offline air bookings.

Freelance writer Richard Showstack of Newport Beach was happy to get a $160 travel voucher from United Airlines last year and planned to apply it to a round trip to Philadelphia.

He was less thrilled when he learned that voucher travel couldn't be booked on the Web.

"The problem is that the fare quoted me on their 800 number was $80 higher than the fare that was offered on their Web site," he said. "Voila! A $160 travel voucher instantly lost half its value."

Jane Engle welcomes comments and suggestions but cannot respond individually to letters and calls. Write Travel Insider, Los Angeles Times, 202 W. 1st St., Los Angeles, CA 90012, or e-mail jane.engle@latimes.com.

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