- The Washington Times - Wednesday, January 22, 2003

Business-class seats are getting cheaper and amenities are disappearing as major airlines juggle their business models to find a formula that will help rescue them from even more serious financial problems. "They're definitely experimenting, and they're also praying at the same time," said Tom Parsons chief executive of Bestfares.com, an Internet-based airline ticket-sales outlet in reference to the desperate condition of big-airline finances.
For most travelers, the amenities they used to take for granted now cost extra. Some airlines are cutting back on discounts for seniors and small children. Travel agents charge higher fees. Airline meals are becoming more sparse, unless passengers are willing to pay for more.
Part of the problem lies with the fact that big airlines relied on business-class fliers to make profits. Leisure class just paid for itself.
With a weak economy and lingering concerns about terrorism, there are fewer business-class fliers. In response, the airlines are offering incentives to bring back these higher-paying customers.
"In the past, the big airlines have been very dependent on the business travelers," Mr. Parsons said. "They've been able to gouge the business travelers."
In the past year, the seven largest airlines have offered 20 percent more discounts for business-class tickets. So although they come with more restrictions, they also come with deep discounts.
Contributing reasons for fewer business-class passengers include the greater "hassle factor" at airports and the high price of last-minute tickets.
The hassle factor refers to the difficulty in getting through lines to board a flight. Terrorism fears, and the elaborate searches and security procedures they generated, have made the hassle factor a bigger issue for airline business.
The Transportation Security Administration dictates security procedures. The airlines set prices.
American Airlines, the nation's largest air carrier, lowered the cost of walk-up business-class fares by 40 percent in the fall on some routes. Walk-up fares are for tickets purchased at ticket counters before a flight, with no notice.
United Airlines offered the same discount on walk-up fares but also gave a 70 percent discount on business-class seats with a one-week advance purchase.
"We've been pleased with the results so far," said Joe Hopkins, United Airlines spokesman.
The airline tested the fare structure for 13 months for flights out of its Chicago hub.
More than routine sales, the discounts are tinged with desperation. Airlines posted $2.4 billion in losses during the fourth quarter of 2002. United Airlines and Arlington-based US Airways are in bankruptcy and other airlines are trying to avoid it.
Amenities have also fallen onto the chopping block.
Among them are discounts for senior citizens. Previously, anyone at least 62 years old could get a 10 percent discount on nearly any flight. Now travelers must be at least 65 years old to get the 10 percent discount and then only on 14-day advance purchases.
United Airlines is saving money by offering more cold food and drinks on medium-distance flights, rather than heated meals.
This month, America West Airlines and Northwest Airlines offer their regular meals to all passengers but more selective choices and generous portions to anyone willing to pay for them. Beef tenderloin is one of the paid menu items. The extras range from $3 to $10.
"They're looking at ways of enhancing existing service without increasing their cost," said Geoff Silvers, marketing director for Orbitz.com, another Internet airline ticket-sales outlet.
Airlines share the drawbacks of their new fee structures. Among them is that more passengers are bringing food with them. Some in the airline industry note that fliers more often leave the leftovers in seat pockets, with the aromas of their onions, anchovies and other food wafting through the cabins.


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