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 The Brancatelli File

joe TIME TO LIGHT
THE TORCHES


BY JOE BRANCATELLI

August 5, 1997 -- If you ever for a moment let down your guard and started thinking that maybe the airlines aren't so bad, I give you this electronic and metaphorical slap upside your head:

The typical fare paid by business travelers during the first six months of this year was 24 percent higher than during the first six months of 1996.

Are you grasping what you're reading? You paid 24 percent more to fly this year than last. Can you even fathom that number in one pass? Against a backdrop of negligible nationwide inflation, the airlines successfully charged you 24 percent more for the average ticket you purchased during the first six months of the year.

Now before you electronic villagers light the torches and march to the various headquarters of the Dr. Frankensteins who run the nation's major carriers, let's make sure you fully understand the statistics.

The American Express Airfare Index, from which that 24 percent figure is culled, is a nifty bit of number crunching that follows airfares in 40 major cities and 215 city pairs. The Index not only tracks full coach prices, it also tracks a Typical Business fare, which counts no fare more restrictive than a 3-day advance purchase; a Lowest Discount fare, which are all those fares for which business travelers never qualify; and an Average Fare Paid, which balances all the one-way prices paid by travelers booked by American Express Travel.

I pay particular attention to the Amex Index because its Typical Business fare wisely factors out the outrageously inflated straight coach fares that even business flyers almost never pay and minimizes the impact of all those leisure fares we never get. And even given the fact that Amex's travel agency does an abominable job of getting business travelers a fair fare, their Typical Business figure is a solid and reliable indicator of what the average road warrior is actually coughing up.

Now you can light those torches. The 24 percent increase is based on Amex's very logical Typical Business fare paid by business travelers in 40 markets over 215 city pairs. By the numbers, that translates to an average national business one-way fare of $424 for June 1997. The average fare was as "low" as $321 in February, 1996.

And if you're looking for that proverbial silver lining that is always supposed to mitigate clouds carrying news of a 24 percent price rise, you can just forget it. There is more news, but it's all bad. For instance:

+ Business travelers in Denver, who already pay the highest typical business fare in the nation ($599 one-way), were further insulted during the first six months of the year. While Denver's business fare jumped 24 percent, exactly in line with the national average, the lowest discount fare paid by Denver leisure flyers tumbled to $109 one-way, a startling 51 percent decline compared to 1996. Think about that the next time you're ducking the leaks in Denver International's fancy fabric roofs or are fighting your way into an overloaded inter-terminal train.

+ Besides Denver's $599 one-way business fare, three other cities have the dubious distinction of having a typical business fare above $500 a pop: San Francisco ($533); Hartford ($526); and Los Angeles ($512).

+ The typical business fares rose above the national average in Miami (31 percent); Kansas City (30 percent); Raleigh-Durham and Salt Lake City (29 percent each); San Diego (28 percent); St. Louis and Dallas (26 percent each); and Austin (25 percent).

+ Delta Air Lines isn't promoting the hell out of its snappy hub in Cincinnati just because it's less crowded and more convenient than its gargantuan Atlanta nexus. The typical one-way business fare in Cincinnati is $443, or $35 higher than the comparable fare in Atlanta, and fares in Ohio are rising faster than in Georgia (25 percent versus 22 percent).

Right about now, you might be thinking, Brancatelli has a solution to all these outrageous fares. I have one, but you ain't gonna like it: Stay home. I know the concept of chaining yourself to your desk is appalling, but I assure you that talking with your butt is the only thing the airlines understand.

Keep your butt parked in your desk chair and the airlines will panic and fares will eventually come down. But keep plopping your butt into airline seats and the airlines will think you don't care and fares will keep rising. And rising. And rising.

This column originally appeared at thetrip.com.

Copyright 1993-2005 by Joe Brancatelli. All rights reserved.