For Flexible Air Travelers, A Few Cheap Seats Remain

Bargain hunters have to be willing to fly on Christmas - or to a city a bit farther away.

Jennifer McShane and her husband just got a little Christmas gift. Instead of driving 10 hours with their 15-month-old from Washington to be with their family in Vermont, they're flying. The cost: $150 apiece, round trip.

The only catch: They have to leave Christmas morning and return on New Year's Eve.

"When I made the reservation the guy told me the plane was half empty on Christmas morning, which is an added bonus. Who wants to be packed in like sardines?" says Ms. McShane, a documentary filmmaker who lives in Potomac, Md.

Like the McShanes, people who are willing to be vigilant and flexible this year can still find bargains, some travel agents say. While other experts are more skeptical about the number of cheap seats left, most agree on one thing: This year will be a record travel season. The economy remains strong, unemployment is down, and people have extra cash.

More than 32 million people are expected to take to the road, rails, and skies this Thanksgiving, according to the Heathrow-Fla.-based AAA. That's up 3 percent from last year. More than 27 million will travel by car. Several hundred thousand will take a train or a bus. The rest, almost 5 million, will fly.

"We're seeing a lot of younger people traveling by air," says AAA's Jill Mross. "They have a couple of extra dollars, and they want to get there quickly."

The airlines are doing their best to make it tempting. Instead of holding their cut-rate fares to fill their planes just before the holidays, many have opted to offer their bargain-basement prices as much as a month or more in advance.

"If you're willing to be flexible on date and time, you can still fly cheap, cheap, cheap this season," says Tom Parsons, editor of Best Fares Discount Travel Magazine in Arlington, Texas.

One reason is the rise of low-cost airlines, such as Southwest, which specialize in short hops between not-so-major cities. If you opt for their low prices, you may have to fly into Baltimore, rather than Washington, or Providence, R.I., versus Boston.

But Southwest and its kind offer such low-cost fares that the major airlines have been forced to match them.

Delta recently came out with a $298 coast-to-coast round trip. It sounds wonderful, but the bargain carries the same catch that snagged the McShanes: You have to travel on Christmas Day, Christmas Eve, New Year's Eve, or New Year's Day.

Chris Privett of the American Society of Travel Agents believes most people have already taken care of their travel arrangements, rather than risk not getting the fares and flights they want. That means many bargains are still available.

"For last-minute travelers, this is a great time to call an agent and find out about the best deals," says Mr. Privett. He advises travelers not to wait too long, however.

But Mike Pingrey, general manager of ACT Travel in Washington, is skeptical about whether there are any low-cost holiday fares left.

Bargain prices are available for "the first three or four people who call for a specific flight," he says, and then rates jump "back up to the pricey stuff."

Other travel agents say the public has also become jaded by the constant din of airline ads hawking low prices with complicated restrictions.

"The airlines do this to fill last-minute seats," says Kim Peele, president of Peele Travel in Alexandria, Va., "But it also just makes people angry, because it doesn't apply to what they want."

But with the airlines predicting near-record loads this holiday season, few experts think the industry will give up its high-profile gimmicks. "Overall, our figures have been increasing fairly regularly since the year began," says Diana Cronan of the Air Transport Association, the trade association for the major airlines. "At least in recent history, we're hitting record capacity."

* Staff writer Ron Scherer contributed to this report from New York.

Airline Income and Outgo

The airline industry gets 90 percent of its revenues from passenger fares, the rest from cargo. Last-minute business travelers pay the most for flights but account for just 10 percent of ticket sales. Discounts abound. On average, passengers get two-thirds off full fare.

On the cost side, some of the airlines' biggest expenses are:

* Fuel and pilot salaries - 28 percent.

* Advertising, reservations, travel-agent commissions - 18 percent.

* Handling passengers, baggage, and aircraft - 16 percent.

* In-flight service, food, and flight-attendant salaries - 9 percent.

Source: Air Transport Association of America

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