Summer air fare sales for U.S. flights are likely to be fewer and more restrictive this year, but bargain hunters may still find cheap seats for what is traditionally the busiest travel period.
High demand combined with limited growth in the number of available airline seats means airplanes are staying full, and travelers could have a harder time finding discount tickets as they plan summer vacations.
"The top seven airlines have not really given us generous sales at all this year. They [the discounts] have been anywhere from 15% to 25% off. . . . In the past, we've seen anywhere between 30% to 40% off," said Tom Parsons, editor of Best Fares Magazine.
Experts say that not only do they see fewer sales this year, but the sales they've seen are more restrictive. This means shallower discounts, shorter sales and less time to use sale tickets and a shorter time to use discount tickets.
In addition, airlines are putting fewer seats on the block when they announce a sale, said CS First Boston airline analyst Tom Schreier.
"The airlines are much better at segmenting their customer base than they ever were before," he said. "They know the threshold at which leisure passengers are unlikely to pay any more for a seat, and they are offering only as many seats at that level as they need to."
Analysts and industry observers say fare sales have fallen not only because of strong demand but also because of better technology, which airlines are using to pinpoint sales to boost travel in weak markets and during less popular travel times.
Terry Trippler, president of an online consumer newsletter that tracks air fares, said airlines are moving more unsold seats over the Internet rather than relying on broad-based sales to keep planes full.
This means good deals to specific markets remain available for fliers who are flexible.
"There clearly is more targeted sales going on, and part of that is a reflection of enhanced technology, and part of that is that business is good," said Tim Smith, a spokesman for AMR Corp. unit American Airlines. "That doesn't mean there aren't low fares out there. It just means they're going to be for more specific times."
Smith and others say vacationers can still find cheap tickets for travel abroad, where airlines have added significantly more seats.
Late last year, Delta Air Lines Inc. began a major effort to expand its presence in Latin America. It has gone from offering 1,000 seats a week to the region to 11,000 seats a week and started flights to Caracas, Venezuela; San Jose, Costa Rica; San Salvador; Panama City; and Guatemala City.
A spokeswoman for Continental Airlines Inc., the second-largest carrier to Latin America following American Airlines, said Continental has increased its seat capacity to Latin America by about 40% over the past year.
Glenn Engel, airline analyst for Goldman Sachs in New York, said seat capacity to Europe has increased about 10% this year over last year.
"Internationally there's a lot of supply being added, so if you want to fly abroad, you're seeing very good deals. Domestically is where it's going to be tougher to find fares as low as a year ago," Engel said.