The Brancatelli File



October 13, 1993 -- Business travelers planning fall and winter forays to Europe are discovering a peculiar twist on the major airlines' pricing and promotion patterns.

Fares for business travel to Europe have declined substantially, albeit within a narrow window of opportunity. Lavish frequent-flyer program incentives, however, have virtually disappeared.

This reversal of fortune breaks a decade-long airline policy of dividing off-season vacationers from business flyers. The airlines traditionally have lured leisure flyers to Europe during the slow fall and winter travel periods by offering extraordinarily low, but heavily restricted, fares. The restrictions were carefully designed to insure business travelers could not use the fares.

Business flyers were forced to use inflated, unrestricted fares to Europe. To induce them to fly in the fall and winter, the airlines offered huge frequent-flyer mileage bonuses or a free domestic ticket for each pair of full-fare transatlantic roundtrips purchased.

But if business travelers act quickly, and plan wisely, they too can take advantage of this year's European fare war. And they might as well, because frequent-flyer program inducements probably won't be offered this year.

"The fare structure in Europe is so incredibly low that none of the fares, not one of them, are compensatory [for the airlines]," explains Bob Cozzi, TWA's senior vice president for marketing. "There's nothing left for promotion."

How low are this year's fares?

A major Europe fare sale, launched on Thursday by American Airlines and promptly matched by the other international carriers, lowered to $598 the restricted roundtrip coach fare between Los Angeles and most European destinations. An earlier fare war had already knocked LAX-London fares down to $529 roundtrip. A third fare skirmish has priced certain connecting flights to Paris and Frankfurt below $500 roundtrip.

The $598 fare, on average, is about 20 percent less than the previous lowest fares to Europe and it carries less stringent restrictions. Moreover, it is about 80 percent below the price of unrestricted full-fare coach in most LAX-Europe markets.

Most surprising, however, is the relatively moderate restrictions on the $598 fare. Although nonrefundable, it only requires a 7-day advance purchase and a 7-day minimum stay. (The fare is valid for flights between Mondays and Thursdays.)

The only fly in the $598 ointment is the purchase date. The fare is valid for travel until March 15, excepting a holiday "blackout" period between December 15 and January 6, but all tickets must be purchased by October 22.

Planning trips as much as five months out within the next ten days is no easy task for business travelers, but there's even a glimmer of hope in that area.

"Last year the airlines quietly kept extending the purchase date on the Europe sale fares," recalls Gary Topping, president of Gulfstream Travel, an Alabama travel agency with a nationwide clientele of business travelers.

"Traffic is slow enough that it's reasonable to assume the airlines might keep extending the purchase date this year, too," Topping predicts.

The trade-off for this unexpected fare bonanza seems sure to be the frequent flyer promotions that business travelers have come to know, love and exploit during the fall and winter.

"Unless the airlines do something in the next ten days, we're not going to get anything big this year," says Randy Petersen, editor and publisher of Inside Flyer, a newsletter that tracks frequent flyer program offers.

In fact, the frequent flyer promotions this year have been few and far between and most are weighted toward business travelers who'll be flying on full-fare and premium-priced tickets.

British Airways, for example, is offering a one-time, 20,000-mile bonus in its Executive Club program for travelers who take a roundtrip transatlantic flight before March 31. But the bonus is only offered to travelers who fly in business class.

TWA is offering automatic upgrades on transatlantic flights, but only to full-fare passengers. Full-fare coach flyers get bumped up to business class, while travelers who buy a full-fare business-class ticket get to fly in first. The upgrade promotion runs through December 31.

In fact, only TWA is offering any kind of frequent flyer treat to European coach travelers. Members of its Frequent Flight Bonus plan receive a 50 percent mileage bonus for every roundtrip completed by December. 15.

"The fact that no other airline has matched our promotions indicates how low the Europe fares are this year," says TWA's Cozzi.

Westin Hotels is offering the Southern California Room and Car Package at its five properties in the Los Angeles area. Besides room rates of $119 to $149 a night, guests receive free use of a car from Dollar Rent a Car. The package is available until December 24. Alaska Airlines will expand service from Ontario to Mexico in December. The airline is scheduled to launch one daily roundtrip to both Mexico City and Guadalajara beginning December 13. Hyatt Hotels has expanded the number of no-smoking rooms available at its U.S. properties. Half of each hotel's rooms are now reserved for non-smokers. Two-thirds of the rooms on each hotel's executive level and floors reserved for members of its frequent-stay program are non-smoking, the company says. Want to fly the supersonic Concorde, but could never justify the cost? The Business Fast promotion from Air France may be just the ticket. Until April 15, LAX passengers paying the business-class fare to France can receive a one-way flight on the Concorde between New York and Paris.

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

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