The Brancatelli File



September 1, 1993 -- It is the oldest complaint in the business-travel book: Since executive travelers usually fly with little or no advance notice, they inevitably pay outrageously inflated full-coach fares and end up squeezed into the middle seat between two vacationing little old ladies from Pasadena.

Of course, the vagaries of American commerce pretty much ensure that executive travelers will always fly at the last moment. And the pricing strategies of the major airlines, which are predicated on the assumption that businesspeople will pay top dollar because they must fly, pretty much dictate that executive travelers will always pay unrestricted full coach fares.

But sit in the middle seat? In coach? That, at least, needn't be the case. Hoping to break the near monopoly of Big Three carriers--American, United and Delta now combine to carry about 60 percent of the nation's traffic--four smaller airlines gladly upgrade executive travelers to first class when they pay the full coach fare.

Because the smaller airlines--TWA, Northwest, Continental and America West--do not have the colossal marketing clout or huge advertising budgets of the major carriers, the upgrade programs are just this side of a secret. But they do exist, and executive travelers can take full advantage of them with a minimum of planning. All they have to do is forsake their robotic reliance on the Big Three.

Say you have to fly from LAX to Raleigh/Durham, North Carolina. American Airlines, the nation's largest carrier, routes you through Chicago's O'Hare Airport and charges a full coach, one-way fare of $630. But TWA, which flies travelers through Lambert Field in St. Louis, offers a fare called YFirst. For the same $630 as American charges for a coach seat, TWA's YFirst fare allows you to reserve a first-class seat to Raleigh/Durham.

Northwest calls its upgrade program Y-UP and it works the same way as the TWA plan. On a flight from Ontario to Omaha via Denver, for example, United charges $500 one way for a seat in the back of the bus. Using the Y-UP fare on Northwest, which flies Ontario-Omaha via Minneapolis, executive travelers pay the same $500, but sit in the front cabin.

Continental's upgrade system, called the A fare, is available on virtually every nonstop and connecting route in its system. On a flight between LAX and Billings, Montana, Continental routes travelers through Denver and confirms first-class seats for the A fare price of $400. Delta flies LAX-Billings via Salt Lake City and charges $400 for a coach seat.

America West's program has no formal name, but its upgrade fares are usually coded YUP6 in the airlines' reservation computers. One example: American Airlines charges $560 one-way for a coach seat on a flight between Long Beach and Milwaukee via Dallas/Fort Worth. Fly America West through its Phoenix hub, however, and the same $560 buys a confirmed seat in first class.

Valid mostly on domestic flights, these upgrade programs are about as good a deal as they seem to be. There's very little in the way of fine print. In fact, restrictions are rarely more severe than Continental's requirement that you join OnePass, its frequent flyer program.

If anything, the upgrade plans are hamstrung only by the airlines' own limitations: Since they are smaller carriers, their route networks and flight schedules aren't as comprehensive as the Big Three. And, of course, first-class cabins are much smaller than coach cabins. Available seats may have already been taken by other travelers who've beaten you to the free upgrade.

In their ardor to woo executive travelers from the major carriers by offering no-cost upgrades, the smaller carriers have even anticipated potential objections from the penny-pinching travel managers who police corporate travel policies. Most companies officially prohibit first-class travel and travel managers snag offending flyers by searching for the tell-tale F code imprinted on standard first-class tickets. But since the upgrade programs are based on full coach fares, no F code appears anywhere on an upgraded ticket.

In other words, companies that foot the bill for most executive travel pay no more than the usual coach fare, business flyers get to relax in a first-class seat and corporate bean counters are none the wiser.

The corporate imperative to keep airfare costs down may be better understood in light of figures released last week by American Express. The firm's monthly "Airfare Index" shows that full-coach fares on August 1 were 42 percent higher than they were on August 1, 1992. The lowest available fares and the so-called "typical business fares"--discounted fares for which last-minute business travelers often qualify--have risen by approximately the same percentage. The Amex figures are based on a composite of 215 markets nationwide. Locally, however, the year-to-year fare increases were even more dramatic: in Los Angeles, typical business fares increased by 53 percent. Full coach fares rose 46 percent at John Wayne Airport in Orange County. Fares in San Diego showed the highest increases: full-coach prices rose a staggering 70 percent, while typical business fares increased by 72 percent. The increases reflect the aftermath of the collapse of American Airlines's ill-starred Value Pricing' scheme and last year's bizarre half-price fare war. Airlines have been pushing through hefty price increases on a regular basis ever since.

This column originally appeared in The Los Angeles Times business section.

Copyright 1993-2007 by Joe Brancatelli. All rights reserved.