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The Saturday-night stay requirement is on its final approach

With low-fare carriers leading the way, some airlines are changing fare structures. But others are holding out.

August 15, 2004|James Gilden | Special to The Times

The Saturday-night stay -- that pesky and expensive requirement that airlines instituted to ensure that the business traveler pays outrageous airfares if he or she wants to go home to the family for the weekend -- has gone the way of the dodo bird.

A few dodos, however, don't seem to realize that they're extinct, but their days may be numbered.

"If it's not dead, it's on life support," said Terry Trippler, a consumer advocate with SideStep, a travel website search engine. "And right now I think the generator is running out of gas."

Many low-fare carriers, such as Southwest, JetBlue and AirTran, never had the Saturday-night rule. Some of the so-called legacy airlines, including America West and Alaska, have eliminated the restriction. United and American did away with it in response to competition but only on some routes. Still others, including Continental, Delta, US Airways and Northwest, mostly continue to enforce the rule, especially in the markets they dominate.

"Where there is absolutely no competition ... it could be holding on strong," Trippler said. "But it's only a matter of time."

For leisure travelers, the elimination of the Saturday-night stay requirement means they can go home on Saturday, saving one night of hotel expense, and rest up from the trip in time for work on Monday.

"Many leisure travelers don't really want to see their brother-in-law over the weekend and would rather come home early," Trippler said.

Experts and industry spokesmen agree that low-fare carriers are the primary reason legacy airlines are adopting more consumer-friendly fare structures, which include the elimination of the Saturday-night stay, the introduction of one-way and walk-up fares and the general restructuring of its fares.

"We have taken a number of aggressive steps to meet the new low-fare realities of the marketplace, including the introduction of permanent and simple GoFares in May," said B. Ben Baldanza, US Airways senior vice president of marketing and planning.

For example, US Airways' highest one-way fare between Philadelphia and Boston is $239, whereas the previous fare was $430 each way. The fares are even lower with advance purchase. (Fares, of course, may be subject to change.)

The roles of the airlines have essentially been reversed. "It is the discounters that are calling the tune to which the industry is marching these days," said Tim Winship, editor and publisher of FrequentFlier.com. "The balance of power has shifted 180 degrees as the majors are scrambling to get their pricing in sync with the discounters."

To test these new realities, I used Orbitz to do a quick study of airfares, both with and without a Saturday-night stay, with three weeks' advance purchase. On the highly competitive Los Angeles-New York route it made no difference whether a Saturday-night stay was included; in fact, on a couple of airlines it cost marginally more to stay over Saturday night.

The same was true for major routes such as Los Angeles to Portland and San Francisco to Chicago. A Saturday-night stay made essentially no difference, regardless of the airline.

Yet when I tested fares for a secondary market, such as Santa Barbara to Medford, Ore., fares on United and US Airways increased 43% when no Saturday-night stay was included. American's fares matched the no-Saturday-stay fares of the other legacies to begin with; on America West, the fare fell slightly without a Saturday-night stay.

A check of Fresno to Chicago yielded similar results. Of the big six airlines, American and United were unchanged with a Saturday stay, but Continental, Delta, Northwest and US Airways all charged at least 32% more for not including a Saturday-night stay.

Alaska and America West, the two legacy airlines that have officially switched to simpler fare structures and eliminated the Saturday-night requirement, say their financial results have validated their decisions to change their structures. America West, which changed its fare structure in March 2002, has seen five consecutive profitable quarters through June of this year. It has also set passenger traffic records for its own operation every month since April 2003.

"Customers responded and continue to respond very favorably," said Janice Monahan, America West spokeswoman. She called the restructuring of fares a "crucial change for the company," which had been struggling in the face of low-fare competition.

Alaska switched to a simplified fare in February. "Overall from what we've seen, we're happy with the results," said Dave Pelter, managing director of revenue management. The airline's passenger traffic increased nearly 12% in the second quarter of this year, though Pelter emphasized that Alaska was still analyzing data.

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