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Get a grip on summer airfares

Special to The Times

WHAT is on the horizon for airfares -- domestic and international? Will they go up in the weeks ahead? Will they cost the same as last summer or much more? Will they go down? Should you buy your summer tickets now or later?

No one can answer those questions. Although travel is depressed, the falloff has caused airlines to cut their capacity so drastically that many travelers are finding planes filled.

But if the airlines continue to reduce the number of flights they are operating, they might be in a position to raise their fares, even if the traffic numbers remain depressed in these somewhat tense and edgy times.

So how about it? Should you buy tickets for your summer vacation travel now or later?

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I suggest the following: If you’re in a position to get an obvious bargain airfare for a trip you’re planning this summer, grab it. There may be no further sales as we move into the summer, and the rates might never again be as low.

But if the rate that’s quoted to you for a summer flight seems high, or at least nothing special, wait. You will have nothing to lose and might be able to obtain a lower-priced ticket before your departure.

Though this advice may seem a bit wishy-washy, I haven’t been able to secure anything more specific from a half-dozen air experts I’ve talked to.

Travel professionals seem unwilling to make a prediction. Not one of them knows whether air travel will sharply revive, domestically or internationally, in these post-Iraq war weeks or continue to be slow. Nor does anyone know whether the progressive reduction in airline capacity will empower the airlines to raise their rates.

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As we await that news, some of the major airlines are continuing to pursue tactics that seem of dubious worth.

A reader recently wrote me, in great puzzlement, to point out that if he wanted to fly from Philadelphia to Los Angeles on a coming Tuesday for a two-day business trip, the fare would be $2,300. But if he flew out on a Saturday afternoon, it came down to $318. What, he asked, is going on?

What’s going on is an effort by major airlines to continue milking business travelers -- more politely, to “increase the yield” from them -- by limiting low-cost fares to trips with a Saturday-night stay, something few businesspeople are willing to schedule.

But increasingly, tools can defeat the aims of the Saturday-night rule. Among them:

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* Fly the cut-rate carriers, such as Southwest, America West, AirTran, ATA or JetBlue, that don’t impose it.

* Try an alternate nearby airport, such as Long Beach or Orange County.

* Try major search engines such as Orbitz or SideStep, which will often alert you to low-cost fares not requiring a Saturday stay.

Prices like the $2,300 that our reader cited are in large part a reason for the plight of the big airlines. Many businesses are digging in their heels, refusing to pay outlandish fares and forcing their executives to fly cheaply on smaller carriers and at less convenient times or to nearby places.

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Result? The only airlines profiting are the budget airlines and some foreign airlines, and the giant carriers are scrambling to create budget airlines of their own. But whether even this development will result in a general lowering of airfares -- or whether it will simply lead to an elimination of some of the smaller budget airlines and a consequent increase in rates -- is hard to know.


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