Saturday, April 19, 2003

Fare war makes Indy, Dayton hot spots


Flights to the West go for under $200

By James Pilcher
The Cincinnati Enquirer

Want to fly west on the cheap? Drive a little west, north or south and reap the benefits of a full-blown fare war.

Indianapolis, Dayton and Lexington have become major battlegrounds for airlines seeking travelers making early summer vacation plans, as a recent sale has grown to include most summer travel to some popular destinations.

Prices have gone as low as $119 round-trip from Indianapolis to Los Angeles; $163 round-trip from Dayton to Seattle; and $181 round trip from Lexington to Las Vegas.

"This is just unbelievable," said Dan Howell, owner of Northside-based Dan Howell Travel. "This is the first time since 1990 that I've seen fares get this low and everyone enter the fray."

But don't wait. The fares could end as soon as midnight Monday.

Experts say the nation's major carriers have expanded the discounts to stand their ground against low-cost carriers such as Indianapolis-based ATA, even as the industry hemorrhages money.

The Tristate's dominant carrier, Delta Air Lines, on Thursday reported a first-quarter loss of $466 million, for example.

"They are cutting their noses off to spite their faces a little bit, but they have also learned from the past that they can't ignore these low-cost threats," said Tom Parsons, operator of the www.bestfares.com Web site. "Back in the late 1990s, when the airlines were making billions instead of losing billions, they ignored this kind of thing and let the ATAs and the AirTrans and the Spirit Airlines sneak up on them."

The sale prices do not apply to flights out of Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky International Airport, which is Delta's second-largest hub. Delta owns 93 percent of the market here, and there is no low-cost competition. In fact, the Department of Transportation listed Cincinnati as having the third-highest average airfares in the nation in its most recent fare report, released in April 2002.

The discounts are primarily to Western destinations and include certain restrictions on which days passengers can travel and on how many days in advance a ticket must be bought. Almost none are direct, nonstop flights.

Still, many of the fares do not require a Saturday night stay, some require only seven-day advance purchase, and most are good for travel through September.

And while many sales make only a few seats on each individual flight available at lower prices, Howell said there appeared to be a lot of availability at the cheap levels.

"My gosh, it's usually $300 or more cheaper to fly out of Dayton than Cincinnati, but this is really low," said Ed High, a Northside rescue equipment salesman, who usually flies five times a month on business and who got a leisure ticket to Seattle for $118 round trip. "At these prices, I'll connect, drive or whatever I have to do."

The fray started when ATA began a "Kids and Seniors" sale this month. Soon, other carriers matched and expanded the sale to include all passengers in all of ATA's markets, which include Lexington, Dayton and Indianapolis.

Indianapolis appears to have the lowest fares; low-cost pioneer Southwest Airlines also serves that city.

But Dayton also has become a focal point. Atlanta-based low-cost carrier AirTran recently beefed up its presence there and also has started flights west from its Atlanta hub. Delta, also based in Atlanta, has added bigger planes and more routes to Atlanta as well.

"Dayton could become a problem for Delta, because they could start pulling more people away from the Cincinnati hub," Parsons said.

"But all the carriers are sending a strong message to the low-cost segment, saying, 'Don't cut your fares too cheap, guys,'" Parsons said.

Delta spokesman John Kennedy said he was not aware of any particular emphasis on this region's markets, but he did say, "Delta will compete fiercely and fairly against all airlines in all of our markets."

The ATA sale is set to expire at midnight Monday, and ATA spokeswoman Lisa Jacobson Brown said she was not aware of any thoughts of continuing it.

"Our traffic numbers are strong, but there is no way of telling whether it's the sale, or continued confidence in flying because of the resolution of the Iraq war, or what," Brown said.

Parsons said that while the low fares could end Tuesday, other airlines could continue the sale as a way of putting more pressure on ATA and other low-cost carriers.

"It could last another week, just to put the squeeze on," Parsons said.

E-mail jpilcher@enquirer.com




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