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INTERNATIONAL BUSINESS-CLASS BAZAAR
By Joe Brancatelli
October 5, 2007 -- International business-class fares are skyrocketing again, so it's probably time to remind ourselves that the airlines' chaotic fare structures nevertheless offer plenty of opportunity to fly up front at substantially less than the insane walk-up prices.

New York/Kennedy to London/Heathrow is now a shade under $10,000 on a roundtrip, walk-up basis. That's 10 percent higher than 18 months ago. Expect to pay almost $17,000 roundtrip if you want a walk-up, business-class seat between Los Angeles and Sydney. That's an eye-popping 30 percent higher than when I last looked in April, 2006. It's now slightly more than $8,600 for a walk-up roundtrip between Atlanta and Zurich, up 17 percent. At $7,700 roundtrip between San Francisco and Tokyo, that route's 18-month price increase of 9 percent seems almost reasonable.

Thankfully, as major international carriers inflate the walk-up price of business-class seats, they've also been forced to discount like crazy. There are more special promotions, fare sales, advance-purchase discounts and price-cutting gimmicks than ever before. Sprinkle in a few new airlines attempting to create an all-business-class market and several niche carriers looking to carve out an international presence and you've got nothing less than a worldwide fare bazaar up front.

Structured Business-Class Fare Discounts Where shall we start searching for deep-discount business-class seats? Well, how about the carriers' own Byzantine fare system? Coach-style yield-management practices are now common in business class, too. Hence the creation of the advance-purchase business-class fare.

Depending on the airline and the market, you can score large discounts if you book between three and 60 days before departure, travel midweek and stay over on a Saturday. Some examples: A 3-day advance San Francisco-Tokyo fare in business class is $4,342 roundtrip on Japan Airlines, about 44 percent off the full fare. Delta Air Line's 50-day advance fare on Atlanta-Zurich is $3,140 roundtrip, or about 69 percent off the full price.

And look at British Airways' fare spread on that new York-London run. Its walk-up fare is now $9,936 roundtrip. It also offers a 7-day advance purchase fare of $7,949. If you are willing to stay over a on a Saturday night, BA also offers a 21-day advance purchase fare of $3,150 and a 50-day advance fare of just $2,750 roundtrip. That lowest fare is more than 70 percent below BA's walk-up price.

What do you need to know about the airlines' advance-purchase business-class bargains? They are almost always nonrefundable and the change fees are stiff. They're not offered every day or on every route. And, worst of all, there's no organized way to find the fares because few airline or third-party Web sites offer a "lowest business-class fare" search option. Not every travel agent or corporate travel department knows about the fares, either. So start hunting and be flexible.

Business-Class Fare Sales They're not as omnipresent as coach sales, but business-class sales are now fairly common, too. Most last just two or three days or are targeted promotions to help publicize a new route. American Airlines, for example, launches New York/JFK-London/Stansted service later this month and American's introductory business-class fares are as low as $2,700 roundtrip. And Continental Airlines is the master of the summer and end-of-the-year business-class sales. Its current holiday sale cuts up-front fares around Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Years to as low as about $1,000 roundtrip from its Newark hub.

What do you need to know about these bargains? Obviously, they are unpredictable, both in terms of restrictions and availability. Worse, airlines don't always advertise the sales. For instance, Continental does nothing to publicize its summer and holiday program. Its entire promotional effort usually consists of a single, unobtrusive link on the Continental.com web site.

The 'Secret' Airlines In these days of gigantic airline alliances and frequent flyer program partners, we naturally focus on the big-name U.S. and international carriers. But there's a fleet of second-tier carriers out there and they offer good business-class service and better prices from selected U.S. gateways. Want some examples? LTU, a German carrier, offers business-class fares between Los Angeles and Dusseldorf for as little as $3,100 roundtrip. The Italian carrier Eurofly flies nonstop from New York to Rome several times a week and charges as little as $1,800 roundtrip with an advance purchase. Oasis Hong Kong plies the Vancouver-Hong Kong route for as little as C$1,600 roundtrip in business class.

And don't forget the four start-up all-business-class carriers. Two (Eos and Silverjet) exclusively cover the New York-London route. But Maxjet also flies to London from Washington/Dulles, Los Angeles and several other cities. And L'Avion fills the gap between New York and Paris. All undersell the big airlines and prices start as low $799 one-way for competitive, business-class service.

Finding these carriers and their lower up-front fares is the business-travel equivalent of a hedge maze. These guys rarely advertise out of their home markets at the retail level and their promotion to the travel trade is also discreet. But try a good travel agent. You may luck out.

Consolidator Savings Consolidators, the third-party middle men who offer deep discounts on international first-class and business-class travel, have less clout now that big carriers willingly and publicly sell discounted premium-class fares on their own Web sites. But contrary to expectations, consolidators haven't disappeared. In fact, they remain the best option for last-minute discounts on business-class travel. How do you deal with a consolidator? Most urge you to buy their fares through a travel agent. "It's just more comfortable for everyone that way," one consolidator explains. "Travel agents know how to deal with us and they are better-suited to deal with flyers."

A couple of years ago, I thought we were headed for more simplicity and more transparency--not to mention lower everyday rates--in premium-class pricing. But that's not likely now. And when you consider Cathay Pacific charges a mind-boggling $27,000 roundtrip for a walk-up ticket in first class between New York and Hong Kong, it's clear that affordability isn't in the big carriers' plans.

But there is hope. More all-business-class carriers are on the way and they are looking to expand their reasonably priced flights to more routes. And the so-called open skies regimen that begins next year between the United States and Europe will unleash a burst of new carriers and new ideas from the old-line airlines.

Somewhere in there, there'll be good service and good prices up front.
ABOUT JOE BRANCATELLI Joe Brancatelli is a publication consultant, which means that he helps media companies start, fix and reposition newspapers, magazines and Web sites. He's also the former executive editor of Frequent Flyer and has been a consultant to or columnist for more business-travel and leisure-travel publishing operations than he can remember. He started his career as a business journalist and created JoeSentMe in the dark days after 9/11 while he was stranded in a hotel room in San Francisco. He lives on the Hudson River in the tourist town of Cold Spring.

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This column is Copyright 2007 by Joe Brancatelli. JoeSentMe.com is Copyright 2007 by Joe Brancatelli. All rights reserved.