Ultra-cheap airfares of little use? Not for airlines

Ultra-cheap airfares of little use? Not for airlines
Officials at Bob Hope Airport fear they are losing business from out-of-town travelers who don't realize their airport is close to tourist attractions such as Hollywood Boulevard and Universal Studios Hollywood. (Raul Roa, Burbank Leader)

It might have seemed that some airlines had gone completely nuts over the last couple of weeks.

Southwest Airlines recently ran television ads that touted $69 fares, followed by promotions from Virgin America for fares starting at $59. Not to be outdone, Alaska Airlines peddled $49 fares — a deep discount compared with the average one-way domestic fare of about $190.

These too-good-to-be-true deals usually come with a slew of restrictions, making them almost useless for most travelers. But industry experts say the fares make plenty of sense to the airlines.

The ultra-low fares usually drive traffic to an airlines' website at a time when demand is slow. And with a myriad of passenger fees charged by the airlines, travelers who buy the cheap tickets are likely to spend enough on bag charges, food and other extras to make it profitable for the carriers, industry analysts say.


"Airlines would rather get some revenue for those seats than to fly them empty," said Rick Seaney, chief executive of the fare-monitoring site

And even if travelers don't book the super-cheap fares, visitors to airline websites might find other deals that appeal to them. Each year, 1 in 10 travelers books an unplanned trip because of great travel deals, said Henry Harteveldt, an airline industry analyst at Hudson Crossing.

"These are tactical tools used on a limited base," he said.

Because airlines impose harsh travel restrictions on the deals, carriers don't expect to sell too many of the super-cheap fares. The Southwest offer was limited to such routes as Albuquerque to Phoenix and Austin to Lubbock, Texas. At Virgin America, the $59 fares were offered primarily for travel on Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Saturdays. The tickets were non-refundable and non-transferable.

Blackout dates on the Alaska, Southwest and Virgin America deals made it difficult for travelers to use the flights for Thanksgiving, Christmas or New Year's Day travel.

"Airlines are very careful when they launch these low fares," Harteveldt added. "They are careful about which routes and what period" they specify in the sales.

Airport's name may be a handicap

Ten years ago, the Burbank-Glendale-Pasadena Airport formally adopted the name Bob Hope Airport.

It was a great tribute to the much-loved comedian and stalwart USO volunteer. But the name has a big drawback: It does not give a clue about its geographic location in Southern California.

Airport officials fear they are losing business from out-of-town travelers who book flights to Los Angeles International Airport, without realizing that Bob Hope Airport is closer to tourist attractions such as Hollywood Boulevard and Universal Studios Hollywood.

Passenger traffic at Bob Hope Airport has been dropping steadily for several years.

"It's hard to differentiate yourself to those kinds of people who are visiting Southern California," airport spokesman Victor Gill said.

It's a problem that is shared by another Southern California facility: John Wayne Airport in Orange County.

"We have heard that some people don't even know where Orange County is," said Jenny Wedge, a spokeswoman for the airport, which adopted the name "John Wayne Airport, Orange County" in 1979.

Both airports have tried to address the problem in the last few months by emphasizing their location in brochures and pamphlets.

At John Wayne, airport officials often note in marketing material that the facility is the closest airport to Disneyland.

At Bob Hope Airport, the name "Burbank" has been added to the airport's designation in promotional material. "By and large, a lot of people have heard of Burbank," he said.