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Discount Carriers: The Airline Irregulars
May 1, 1995 -- Although rip-roaring, price-slashing fare wars have become a permanent fixture on the travel landscape, enlightened travelers shouldn't be misled: Americans are actually paying more, not less, for airline tickets.

But there is an antidote for the pricing tyranny of the nation's major airlines: a quirky, combative crop of airline discounters.

One discounter, Southwest Airlines, is well known even to infrequent travelers. Its relentlessly cheery, no-frills brand of airline transportation has grown into a nationwide network of 1,900 daily flights. The others--and there are more than a dozen now--are less famous. They range from fast-growing regional operations such as Atlanta-based Valujet and Kansas City-based Vanguard Airlines to niche carriers such as AirTran Airways, Carnival Air Lines and American Trans Air, which specialize in flying passengers to popular vacation destinations.

The discounters are impossible to define as a group because they offer a disjointed pattern of flights, in-flight services, and conveniences. In fact, about the only thing this fleet of airline irregulars has in common is their ability to sell you an airline ticket for as much as 67 percent less than the big-name carriers.

THE MONEY YOU SAVE
The airline industry's cycle of frequent, ferocious fare wars sometimes convinces travelers to ignore discounters because they think finding a bargain is simply a matter of waiting for the next price skirmish. In fact, however, fare-war prices are often illusory: They are usually available only on certain days and times of the week, and then only for a few seats. And discounted fares must be purchased weeks--sometimes a month--before departure.

Thankfully, the discount carriers listed here regularly offer lower-than-fare-war prices--and with less restrictive terms.

One example: between New York and Los Angeles, American Airlines offers a dozen different coach fares with a variety of advance-purchase restrictions, minimum-stay requirements and cancellation penalties. But Tower Air sells a single coach fare: $169 one-way. Tower's fare is unrestricted and fully refundable. It is also $15 cheaper than American's lowest restricted fare and a whopping 33 percent less than the $259 American charges for its lowest one-way unrestricted fare.

Denver-based Frontier Airlines offers another startling contrast between discounters and major airlines. On its flights to Las Vegas, Frontier's lowest restricted fare is $158 round-trip, 67 percent less than $480 charged by United Airlines. Similarly, Frontier's lowest unrestricted one-way fare to Las Vegas is $169; United's price ($387) is more than twice as high.

THE SERVICE YOU GET
It's logical to assume that discounters can offer the lower fares because they have less comfortable seats and spartan in-flight service. But that's not necessarily true. Frontier's planes are configured with an upgraded coach cabin that offers more comfortable seating than the major airlines. Midway Airlines, based in Raleigh-Durham, operates a fleet of new jets fitted with roomy leather seats. Kiwi International, a discounter that serves New York, Chicago, Atlanta, Florida, and Bermuda, offers spacious seating and fresh, tasty in-flight meals. Reno Air, which operates in several western states, has a plush first-class cabin. Tower and Carnival, which operate both domestic and international service, have commodious, business-class cabins on some flights.

Of course, many of the other discount airlines are distinctly no-frills. Like Southwest, they feed passengers peanuts instead of meals, fly coach cabins with tightly spaced seats, and offer none of the basic amenities (advanced-boarding passes, assigned seats and frequent-flyer programs) offered by the majors.

WHAT YOU DON'T GET
The unconventional nature of the discounters means you should ask about their in-flight service policies before booking. And don't expect discounters to offer all the routine conveniences provided by the major carriers.

Valujet and Southwest, among others, do not "interline." In other words, you cannot effortlessly transfer your tickets and luggage between their flights and the flights operated by the majors. Many discounters have limited schedules, sometimes flying just once a day between destinations. Others, including Valujet, Vanguard, Pittsburgh-based Nations Air, and Colorado-based Western Pacific, are ticketless operations.

A NOTABLE CAVEAT
Few discount carriers are full-fledged participants in the computerized reservation systems used by travel agents. You may have to make your own flight reservations. Or ask your agent to handle the arrangements by telephone.

WHO'S WHO
Air South, not surprisingly, flies around the South. (800-247-7688)

AirTran Airways flies from the Northeast to Florida. (800-247-8726)

American Trans Air, an offshoot of a charter carrier of the same name, flies scheduled service from the Midwest to Florida. (800-382-5892)

Carnival Air Lines is owned by the cruise line of the same name and mostly ferries passengers from the Northeast to Florida cruise ports. (800-437-2110)

Frontier Airlines is a distant relation to the original Frontier. Like its predecessor, it is based in Denver. (800-432-1359)

Grand Airways flies from the Southwest to Las Vegas (800-634-6616)

Kiwi International flies from the New York area to Atlanta and Florida. (800-538-5494)

Markair, formerly an Alaska-based carrier, now operates primarily to/from Denver. (800-627-5247)

Midway Airlines, no relation to the former carrier of that name, flies to and from Raleigh/Durham. (800-446-4392)

Nations Air flies to and from Pittsburgh. (800-248-9538)

Reno Air operates in the West, primarily from hubs at Reno, Nevada, and San Jose, California. (800-736-6247)

Spirit Airlines flies from the Northeast to Florida. (800-772-7117)

Southwest Airlines is the nation's largest discount carrier and flies nationwide although it bypasses major cities such as New York and Atlanta because their airports are too crowded. (800-435-9792)

Tower Air is based at New York's Kennedy Airport and flies to Florida, Los Angeles and several international destinations. (800-221-2500)

Valujet flies to and from Atlanta. (800-825-8538)

Vanguard Airlines flies to and from Kansas City. (800-826-4827)

Western Pacific flies to and from Colorado (800-930-3030)

This column originally appeared in Travel Holiday magazine.

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