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Airlines Fighting Fear With Freebies

<i> Greenberg is a Los Angeles free-lance writer</i>

A few weeks ago a British radio personality characterized American tourists as being “like bad Bulgarian wine. They don’t travel very well.”

Indeed, unnerved by terrorism or fearing reprisals for the American bombing of Libya, Americans are avoiding Europe in record numbers.

“The week the Americans bombed Libya,” reports Colin Marshall, chief executive of British Airways, “we had 27,000 more cancellations than we had reservations.”

For airlines such as British Airways and British Caledonian Airways, it has been a very tough summer. Both airlines depend heavily on their North Atlantic routes.

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“Our projections are substantially down for this summer,” says Laurence Price, British Caledonian’s route planning manager for North America.

“We’re working very hard to convey the message that Europe is a safe place to visit, but it’s been an uphill battle. We always try to compete with great service,” he says, “but now we find ourselves up against formidable competition. It’s called fear, and we feel it’s wholly unwarranted.”

The day after I spoke with Price, British Caledonian announced substantial cutbacks and early retirements of staff (more than 1,000 jobs will be affected) and some cutbacks in airline schedules to the United States.

Similar Responses

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Other airlines have responded in similar fashion.

“We’ve already taken a number of steps to ride this out,” says British Airways’ Marshall. First, the airline has put a hiring freeze on new employees. Normally, at this time of year, BA staffs an additional 1,500 people. Not this summer.

All of TWA’s European routes are on sale, with lots of goodies thrown in, and fares are incredibly low.

For example, LAX to London is only $424.50 one way, much less than the lowest advance purchase (APEX) fares normally charged at this time of year. Cairo is only $399 one way.

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But TWA isn’t just offering slashed fares. The airline will also throw in a free Hertz rental car for a week, a free hotel for up to a week.

The offer gets better. If you buy your TWA ticket to any European or Middle Eastern destination before July 15 and use it before Dec. 15, the airline will give you a free ticket for a travel companion to any of the airline’s domestic or Caribbean destinations.

Prizes for Effort

“It’s almost gotten to the point where if you just make the effort to show up at the airport for a flight to Europe you’ll get some sort of prize or discount,” jokes one airline spokesman.

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But it’s no joke. Pan Am is offering the same free ticket deal if you buy a seat to Europe before July 15.

No one has gone further to entice Americans abroad this summer than British Airways.

“What we finally decided,” says one British Airways official, “was that the only thing to mitigate American travelers’ fears was not to discount Europe but to simply give it away.”

And that’s exactly what the airline has done, embracing the philosophy that if you can’t beat ‘em, treat ‘em.

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So on June 10 England becomes one giant freebie, as British Airways dedicates all of its 5,200 seats from every one of its 15 U.S. gateway cities to free travel for Americans who have won its “Go for It” sweepstakes giveaway. (Tickets given away include all classes of service, including Concorde.)

“Things are slowly beginning to look better,” says Marshall. “We’re trying to stimulate Americans, to reawaken them. We know people have been turned off, and our message is simply that it’s safer to be in Britain this summer than it is in America.”

More Freebies

And once on the ground, the giveaways and discounts continue.

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Hilton International has substantially cut room rates in 14 European cities between June 15 and Aug. 31.

And 28 Inter-Continental and Forum hotels in Europe have just announced a special summer discount program. Anyone staying two weeknights at any of the hotels will receive two weekend nights free. (Caution: This deal is effectively offering travelers a 50% discount for four nights at one of these hotels, as the program is available to those who have paid the full published rates.)

Now does this mean Hawaii has become one giant traffic jam? Is Honolulu overflowing with tourists? Is Maui bulging with visitors? Is Kona bursting with incoming haoles ?

Well, not exactly. It seems that assumption could be the mother of disappointment.

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To be sure, Hawaii is a hot destination and getting hotter. But don’t assume that it is full to capacity. In fact, so many Americans, as well as their travel agents, are convinced that Hawaii is overbooked that a substantial number of vacancies have been reported.

In fact, the state had been projecting a stagnant tourism year until terrorism seemed to motivate tourists to head west. “Actually,” says Hawaii’s Gov. George Ariyoshi, “our thoughts to promote domestic tourism came before the problems with terrorism.”

Discouraging Bookings

Indeed, when United Airlines looked at its advance bookings earlier this year, the results were not encouraging.

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“As a result,” says United spokesman Chuck Novak, “we lowered the fares for the spring and summer season to attract more passengers. There are still plenty of seats available to the Islands.”

United Vacations, a subsidiary of the airline, also lowered its combined air and ground packages.

Now, a trip to Hawaii is a very inexpensive proposition. Ironically, because of the fallout from the lack of American tourism in Europe, airlines such as TWA are looking for ways to make use of extra airplanes that might otherwise have been used across the Atlantic.

And where is TWA headed? Hawaii.

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Today TWA inaugurates nonstop 747 service between St. Louis and Honolulu, and later this month the airline will begin nonstop service between New York and Hawaii four times weekly.

Bargains Beyond Hawaii

For those who want to travel beyond Hawaii, the bargains are just as great. Air New Zealand is aggressively marketing its South Pacific destinations at a time considered particularly slow for travel to the region.

“We’re seeing interest in the South Pacific as a viable alternative to Europe,” says spokeswoman Diane Anderson. The airline has launched a “Climate Is Right for New Zealand” campaign, an indirect pitch for the safety of that country as a destination.

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And because it’s officially considered the low travel season Down Under, the airline is offering a great ticket value: For $896 Air New Zealand will fly you to New Zealand and throw in three free stopovers in Hawaii, Fiji and Tahiti.

Once in New Zealand, the airline will also fly you round trip to the Cook Islands for only $150. And another tour package includes air fare to New Zealand and Australia, hotels for four nights in Sydney, three nights in Auckland and two nights in Honolulu. The price is only $1,099.

The law of supply and demand has produced an unprecedented buyer’s market this summer.

Just because isolated incidents of terrorism have forced airlines, hotels and tour operators to slash prices, try not to let those same incidents set your travel agenda. The prices will never be better.

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