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 The Brancatelli File

joe HOW TO FLY FIRST
AND PAY LESS. MAYBE.


BY JOE BRANCATELLI

June 17, 2004 -- If you happened to go to Delta.com today looking to fly from Atlanta to San Francisco tomorrow, you would have been quoted a one-way nonstop coach fare of $281. But what the Delta site would not have volunteered--and what you might never have learned--is that Delta would also fly you nonstop in first class tomorrow for just $331.

Why wouldn't Delta tell you that you could fly the same flight at the same time in first class for just $50 more than coach? Probably for the same reason that the booking engine at Continental.com won't volunteer that you can fly nonstop between Newark and Rome in BusinessFirst this summer for just $1,679.82 roundtrip, which is just a third of Continental's unrestricted business-class price. And it's also probably the same reason why Continental's first-class fare between Houston and Chicago costs about the same as that Newark-Rome trip.

Needless to say, premium-class prices are now all over the metaphoric map. The chaos and irrationality that has long afflicted coach-cabin pricing has reached the front of the bus. And it goes without saying that now you should never book a coach trip without first checking whether there is a competitively priced business- or first-class seat available. You may be shocked to find a seat up front for just a few bucks more--and sometimes even a few bucks less--than cattle class.

But let me tell you two things right now. First, there are no hard-and-fast rules for finding these bargain-priced first-class fares. Second, you're never going to understand any of this unless you disabuse yourself of the long-held notions that airlines never discount premium-class seats and that you should never buy a first-class fare.

What's going on up front is the result of a confluence of loosely related events: The influx of rational-fare carriers like America West and Alaska Airlines, who have reasonable first-class fares, into markets traditionally dominated by the Big Six; the spread of low-fare carriers like AirTran and Spirit, who have inexpensive business-class cabins, on routes once monopolized by the Big Six; the knee-jerk tactical response of Big Six carriers whenever a lower-priced competitor arrives; and the spread of yield-management techniques into the overpriced forward cabins of international flights.

The net-net is a fundamental shift in how airlines--and especially the Big Six--price premium-class seats. Until very recently, first- and business-class fares were set at unconscionably high rates and then the carriers refused to budge on prices. There was no discounting, no advance-purchase pricing and no fiddling with the alleged sanctity of the one-price-fits-none premium-class price structure.

But now anything goes. And that's the key to understanding all this: The old rules are dead and you're likely to find all sorts of prices in premium class. I use the word "find" advisedly because business travelers are out of practice when it comes to looking for first-class fares. And airlines and travel agencies are out of practice when it comes to promoting first-class fares.

I'm not kidding about that last one. Finding these fares is a nightmare because the system is so focused on coach travel. For example, four of the Big Six Web sites don't even offer a first-class pricing option on their home pages. None of the largest online agencies--Orbitz, Expedia and Travelocity--has a first-class option on the home page, either. You have to drill into the "more options" part of these sites, then fill out convoluted forms. And even then you have to specifically request either premium or coach fares. There is no opportunity to ask for both fares in the same display and thus no chance to compare coach and first-class fares.

Delta and Continental's respective home pages do offer a first-class option on the home page, but only for roundtrip travel. Neither site offers a system for simultaneously displaying the first- and coach prices, either.

What about calling the airlines directly? Have you tried that lately? Wait times are insane. Sadly, most traditional travel agents are of limited help, too, because they are essentially out of the business of writing airline tickets. They no longer have a financial incentive to sell you airline seats, even more expensive first-class ones, and they have largely lost touch with the changing nature of premium-class pricing.

So, basically, you're on your own if you want to take advantage of the sometimes startling values that are out there in the premium classes. Which would be okay--after all, most of us prefer to control our own travel these days--if there were any foolproof tricks for finding the fares. But there aren't. The best I can offer right now is collection of practical guidelines.

THINK FIRST FIRST I don't mean this to sound unnecessarily Zen, but if you believe cheap first-class fares are out there then you stand a decent chance of finding them. My point being that you should start looking for first-class fares first, which is not easy because we've trained ourselves to search almost exclusively for the lowest practical fare. But next time you're looking to book a flight, start by asking for the first-class fares. You'll be shocked--for bad and for good, I admit--by what you'll find. And remember: You have to specifically request first-class fares because the big Web sites aren't designed to volunteer them.

START WITH THE OTHER GUYS Start your search for reasonable premium-class fares by looking at the routes offered by America West and Alaska, who sell cheaper first-class travel and are expanding quickly into new markets. Or start at the Web sites of Spirit or AirTran. Those carriers offer business classes that are short on perks but long on what's most important (legroom) to most of us. And since the Big Six have generally matched these carriers' premium-class pricing, you can almost always find a discounted Big Six first-class fare on competitive routes. One example: American's AA.com today quoted $1,890 one way for a first-class flight between Boston and San Jose tomorrow. But first-class flights to San Francisco, just 30 miles away, were selling for $707.90. Why? America West flies the Boston-SFO route, too, and American is matching their first-class fares.

UNDERSTAND THE COMPETITIVE MINDSET Although the Big Six are matching the other guys, they aren't necessarily offering lower prices on every first-class seat they fly on competitive routes. So look for Big Six flights that operate at about the same time as the alternate carriers. Those Big Six flights are most likely to have lower priced seats. One example: AirTran operates a 6:14 p.m. flight between Atlanta and New Orleans and Monday's business-class fare is $232. Delta.com quoted $242 in first class for a competitive Delta flight at 7 p.m. on Monday. But a first-class seat on Delta's 2:35 p.m. departure, which has no competition from AirTran, costs $561.

NO FIRST? NO PROBLEM The Big Six fare structure is so Byzantine that even all-coach carriers like Frontier, JetBlue and Southwest create first-class pricing ripples. So make sure you know which routes the all-coach airline competition is flying. Why? When a discounter comes into a market, Big Six carriers not only match on coach seats, but they also revise first-class fares. One example: In a belated attempt to blunt Southwest's incursion into Philadelphia, US Airways created GoFares. So while a first-class seat between US Airways' Charlotte hub and Los Angeles is priced at $1,452 one-way, US Airways now charges just $699 first class on the Philadelphia-LAX route, where Southwest and Frontier have launched all-coach flights.

UNDERSTAND THE RESTRICTIONS Once upon a time--for the terms of this conversation, that's probably just before 9/11--there was only one type of first-class ticket: unrestricted, one-way and completely refundable. No more. The Big Six are now applying coach-style yield-management techniques and offering yield-managed first-class discounts, complete with advance-purchase rules, Saturday-stay restrictions, nonrefundable clauses, change fees and roundtrip requirements. It's not uncommon now to see five or six first-class fares per flight, each with a different set of regulations. These new fares may not even carry the traditional F fare code and may be listed as A, YUP or Z fares.

KNOW THE GAME The Big Six are still skittish about the change in the first-class fare game. They not only are reluctant to talk about it, but they often post their first-class sales in comparative secret. Take that deeply discounted Newark-Rome flight on Continental, for instance. It's part of a summer sale Continental launched this week without advertising or publicity support. The only public notice: a one-line link on the Continental.com home page. So don't assume a cheap first-class fare doesn't exist just because the airline isn't talking and you haven't heard about it.

HOPE THE BIG SIX BREAK THEIR RULES Several of the Big Six--most notably Northwest--have long had promotions offering first-class upgrades on full-coach fares. These deals could take the form of a market-specific offer to upgrade any passenger who buys the straight-coach fare. Or they could resemble Northwest's ConnectFirst program, which offers a first-class seat if you agree to connect through a Northwest hub and pay a full-coach type fare. But once these fares are in the computer, they may pop up wherever the airline needs them. Which explains why there is a ConnectFirst fare of $511 on Northwest's nonstop Detroit-New York/LaGuardia route.

THINK TACTICALLY In their frenzy to squeeze a few extra bucks out of operations, the Big Six (and some international carriers) have decided that selling first- or business-class seats at deep, deep discounts is better than leaving them empty or giving them away as upgrades. So they now run international premium-class fare sales during what seems like peak travel periods: in the heart of the summer vacation-travel season or even during the end-of-the-year holidays. Why? The coach cabins may be packed with holidaymakers, but premium cabins are empty because business travelers aren't flying. To address the imbalance, airlines sometimes offer giveaway premium-class fares to induce a few travelers to go up front instead. So while you may not be able to beg, borrow or finance an overpriced coach-class seat during peak travel seasons, you may find incredible bargains up front at the times you most want to take a holiday. It sounds weird, but these are the airlines, after all.

This column originally appeared at JoeSentMe.com.

Copyright 1993-2004 by Joe Brancatelli. All rights reserved.