Originally created 12/20/96

`Lowest' airline fares hard to come by



WASHINGTON - Some cross-country air travelers may pay $1,000 more than the passenger in the next seat, even though both asked for the "lowest" fare, a consumer group reports.

A lot depends on how hard a travel agent searches for the best fare, and that can depend on how hard the customer pushes them, said Janice Shields of the U.S. Public Interest Research Group.

"You have to let them know you really want to lowest fare," she said. Ask: "Is that really the lowest? And they will look again."

Chris Privett of the American Society of Travel Agents, blamed airline pricing policies for the wide range of prices, saying "there may be up to 100,000 fare changes a day. So, from moment to moment, depending on how quickly seats are filling, there will be fare changes and they can be substantial."

Airlines try to manage their incomes by limiting the number of seats sold at low prices, Mr. Privett explained. "They have a certain inventory of cheaper seats," he said. "As the last seat at that price gets filled, the fare will jump. So prices can change substantially over the course of a day."

The consumer group made calls to 325 travel agents and airlines across the country on Nov. 19, asking prices on each of 23 trips for one person, on a specified day, either with or without advance purchase discounts.

Instead of 23 similar responses, the callers were quoted 180 different prices.

The biggest gap was $1,174.54 between the highest and lowest price quotes for a trip between Los Angeles and New York. Ten different prices were quoted in response to 15 inquiries for prices on that route, ranging from a low of $364.82 to a high of $1,539.36.

"We were dismayed to find such a wide range of air fares when the lowest price was requested for identical trips," she said.

The greatest variety occurred from Washington, D.C.

On 13 calls for fares between Washington and Billings, Mont., the group got 13 different quotes, ranging from $580 to $1,452. It made 14 requests for fares between Washington and Salt Lake City and got 14 different fares. The range was from $396.40 to $1,000.

And it tried 15 different agents or airlines seeking fares between Washington and Austin, Texas. The response: 15 different prices from $194 to $994.

On the other hand, prices quoted between Newark, N.J., and Los Angeles were quite consistent. Fourteen inquiries produced just two different prices: $1,500 or $1,530.28.

Travel agents tended to produce lower prices than calls to airlines, the report found, even though agents earn commissions on their sales. Their fees are 10 percent of the ticket price up to a maximum of $50.

Mr. Privett said travel agents depend on repeat business, "so an agent trying to take advantage of a traveler (by selling a more costly ticket) makes no sense."

Of the 23 routes surveyed, travel agents produced the lowest fares in 14 cases.

Buying tickets in advance and staying over a Saturday night usually resulted in lower prices.

Travelers would have saved $100 or more on 15 trips by buying in advance, but on five trips the saving by buying 90 days ahead was less than $50.

Staying over a Saturday night saved at least $50 on 13 of the routes, with the discount topping $500 in four cases, the researchers said.