- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 25, 2009

ATLANTA | In a sign of great uncertainty about demand for air travel this year amid the deep U.S. recession, discount carrier AirTran Airways launched a fare sale to all its destinations Tuesday for flights through the middle of the fall. The purchase time extends through March 5.

American Airlines, Continental Airlines, United Airlines, US Airways and Delta Air Lines quickly matched the prices on routes where they compete with AirTran, and JetBlue said it would do the same.

AirTran’s sale extends through the summer, normally a busy time for airlines when they have been able to reap premiums in the past as more people travel. But now with many people hurting financially, fewer are taking vacations, businesses are cutting back on corporate travel and many who fly are waiting longer to book.

What’s also unusual is how far in advance AirTran has loaded its schedule. Prior to two weeks ago, AirTran showed its schedule for about 210 days. On Tuesday morning, the carrier was showing its schedule for the next 267 days. Discount carrier Southwest Airlines Co. as of Tuesday was only showing its schedule for the next six months, while legacy carriers tend to show their schedule for about 11 months out.

“Basically, what they are doing is locking in seats because of the lack of certainty of what’s going to happen during the recession,” Rick Seaney, head of airfare research site FareCompare.com, said of AirTran. “They can throw all their history out the window.”

Asked whether the length of the sale is a sign of desperation, Mr. Seaney said, “I wouldn’t call it desperation, but I would call it a healthy dose of realism. At this point, airlines are not trying to make a profit on each seat, they are just trying to fill them up.”

AirTran, a unit of Orlando, Fla.-based AirTran Holdings Inc., said its sale fares, starting as low as $39 one-way, are available for purchase through March 5 for travel through Nov. 4. The biggest discounts are for travel on Mondays, Tuesdays, Wednesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays. The sale fares are slightly more for travel on Fridays and Sundays.

There are some blackout dates and restrictions involving certain destinations, like Florida and Cancun, Mexico. A 10-day advance purchase is required, and seats at the discounted fares are limited.

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