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Southwest Airlines' airfare sale tactics don't fly well with all

TRAVEL BRIEFCASE

Bestfares.com chief Tom Parsons says the carrier's promotion includes some small-print exceptions -- such as the blackout dates -- that should have been prominently displayed in bold lettering.

August 22, 2009|Hugo Martin

Although Southern California still enjoys shorts and T-shirt weather, airlines have already started to roll out discount fares for Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year's travel.

This is great news for bargain-hunting travelers, but it signals growing desperation among U.S. airlines, which have seen revenues drop 21% in July versus the same month last year, according to the Air Transport Assn. of America, the industry trade group that represents most passenger airlines in the country.

"Everybody is fighting for your buck," said Tom Parsons, chief executive and founder of Bestfares.com, an Internet discount travel website. "It's definitely a fliers' market."

But Parsons takes exception with the tactics of one airline that has joined the discount fare war: Southwest Airlines.

When Southwest unveiled its "Fall Savings" deals -- offering one-way fares from $59 to $109 for flights between Sept. 9 and Jan. 7 -- it included some small-print exceptions that Parsons insists should have been made clear in bold lettering.

The deal's blackout dates are Nov. 24, 2009, to Dec. 1, 2009, and Dec. 18, 2009, to Jan. 4, 2010. That's a grand total of 26 blackout days clustered around the major fall and winter holidays.

In his website, Parsons called it a "Bah Humbug airfare sale" because the blackout dates make it nearly impossible for families with school-age children to take advantage of the deals, he said.

A Southwest spokeswoman, however, insisted that bargain fares can be found during those blackout periods, depending on availability. But since the airline cannot promise those deals across the board, she said Southwest decided to list only the specific dates when the bargain fares are more certain.

"We are trying to be as honest and straightforward as possible with our customers," said airline spokeswoman Brandy King.

So, how do travelers know if the discount rates are available during the holiday season?

King suggests travelers visit the airline website, punch in the date they want to fly, and see what rates pop up.

"In other words, we should just poke around," Parsons said sarcastically.

Boarding pass ads for British carrier

As revenue for airlines continues to drop, British Airways has opted to sell advertising space where passengers are sure to see it: the boarding pass.

Beginning Oct. 1, British Airways hopes to sell ads on all online boarding passes that passengers print from their home computers, said airline spokeswoman Michelle Kropf.

If all goes as planned, she said the ads would promote businesses along the route that the passenger is taking.

For example, if you're flying to London on British Airways, the boarding pass you print may display an ad for the Four Seasons Hotel or Harrington's restaurant in London.

Such ads have become common among U.S. airlines, including Delta, American and Continental airlines. But the announcement last week makes British Airways among the first major European airlines to sell ad space on its boarding passes.

Fuel surcharge could come back

Over the last year, the airline industry has enjoyed a steep drop in jet fuel prices. As a result of the decline, many domestic and international airlines have reduced or eliminated fuel surcharges that are typically added to the price of airline tickets.

But recently jet fuel prices in the U.S. have begun to creep back up, from about $1.50 a gallon in January to $1.75 a gallon earlier this week.

In response, Japan Airlines has requested approval from the Japanese government to reinstate a fuel surcharge on international flights that the airline canceled in May. The charge, which will be added to tickets issued between Oct. 1 and Dec. 31, will range from $3 to $69 per ticket, depending on the flight, according to the airline.

Can we expect other airlines to follow suit?

Rick Seaney, a travel expert and co-founder of FareComp are.com, said more surcharges for international flights are likely if oil prices continue to climb.

But he said he doubts that airlines would increase the charges for domestic flights, considering the sharp drop in demand.

It's a 'Mad Men' hotel campaign

Here's a hotel campaign that could cause some marital strife:

The travel website Cheap Ostay.com is promoting two New York hotels featured in the hugely popular AMC drama "Mad Men."

The Sherry-Netherland Hotel and the Pierre are where the show's womanizing characters, Don Draper and Roger Sterling, had some of their extramarital trysts.

The website encourages visitors to "travel like a Mad Man," adding that a stay at one of these five-star hotels "will certainly be an affair to remember . . ."

Rates at the two hotels start at $368 per night -- marital counseling not included.

--

hugo.martin@latimes.com

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