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Southwest kicks off summer airfare war

Other airlines quickly match or even beat the lower ticket prices as the carriers scramble to fill seats.

March 20, 2009|Peter Pae

A summer airfare war is heating up as one of the worst downturns in travel is leaving airlines scrambling to fill seats.

Fares for summer trips are often among the highest of the year and start rising in the spring, but not this year. With business travel plummeting, airlines are pulling back and offering some of the lowest-priced plane tickets in recent memory.

"This is a whopper of an airfare sale," said Tom Parsons, chief executive of air travel website Bestfares.com. "They are doing everything they can to make you fly."

Southwest Airlines on Thursday launched the first volley, announcing that it was slashing fares across its network for travel up to Aug. 14.

The fares -- as low as $49 one way from Los Angeles to San Francisco with a 14-day advance purchase -- apply for travel Monday through Thursday and Saturday. Reservations must be made by April 6.

Major airlines including American, United and Delta matched the fares on most of the routes flown by Southwest. They, along with Southwest, are the busiest carriers at Los Angeles International Airport.

The latest fare deals are the broadest so far and include travel days that airlines often exempt from the discounts.

The offers include deals for travel any day of the week except Fridays and Sundays, giving travelers five days out of the week to qualify for a low fare. They also extend through much of the summer. In the past, most fare deals stopped during or before June.

With taxes and fees, a round-trip flight from LAX to Baltimore-Washington International Airport in late June was being offered at $218 on Thursday by Southwest. United and US Airways quickly beat it by offering a fare of $211.

Some typical caveats remained for peak holiday travel days: There were few deals for travel during the Memorial Day and Fourth of July holidays. Also, fares on certain routes with limited service remained relatively high.

Airlines that have international flights are also slashing fares for trips to other countries, with round-trip tickets from Los Angeles to London falling below $600, compared with about $1,000 last summer. United on Thursday was offering a round-trip flight from LAX to Moscow for $598 on certain days.

With the recession hitting virtually all sectors of the economy and spreading across the globe, travel demand has been falling faster than the pace at which airlines have been cutting flights. In February, the nation's six largest airlines saw passenger traffic drop 11%. For some airlines it was the 12th consecutive monthly decline.

At the same time, more corporations are cutting back on travel expenses and requiring employees to purchase economy-class seats rather than business-class or first-class tickets.

As a result, airlines are trying to make up the difference by pushing more leisure travel, said Joe Brancatelli, editor of business travel website JoeSentMe. Passengers flying in business-class or first-class sections make up only about 15% of the flight manifest but often provide 50% of the revenue.

The number of passengers traveling on first-class or business-class tickets worldwide fell by nearly 17% in January -- the latest month for which data are available -- compared with a year earlier, according to the International Air Transport Assn.

"Business passengers are trading down to cheaper tickets," the trade group said this week.

In response, airlines have been discounting business-class seats sharply, in some cases down to levels comparable to refundable, unrestricted, economy-class tickets.

Even then there hasn't been enough demand, so some airlines have begun pulling out business-class seats and replacing them with more economy seats.

Jason Womack, an Ojai-based management consultant and a frequent flier, said it was easier than ever for him to upgrade his economy-class tickets and fly in the plane's premium seats, which are wider and have more legroom.

"These days, most of the people I sit next to got upgraded," Womack said, adding that he had noticed more planes taking off with empty premium seats. "This is the year to travel -- if you've got money."

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peter.pae@latimes.com

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