While the nation's airlines try to pull out of their financial nose dive, the flying public is enjoying - however briefly - a rare joy ride. Since late last fall most of the carriers have dangled special $99 fares in an attempt to recoup operating losses and at the same time to win over a portion of the population hitherto unknown to flying. On Feb. 10, when the first spate of bargain flights ran out, new fares with provisions only slightly less appealing were installed, to last until April 1 or 15, depending on the airline and the route.
While the tactics have not created stampedes to America's airports, and most of the airlines are still reporting losses, anyone who has called for reservations recently has detected heightened interest in flying by one of two sounds: a busy signal or a recorded message. Both were encountered the other day when I phoned Continental - one of the pioneers of the $99 fares - to do some serious sleuthing.
My motives were twofold. I not only wanted to check Continental's offerings to find how much red tape was attached to the 99-ers, I was also looking for the cheapest way to get from New York to Minneapolis for a family visit. Somewhere I had seen an ad listing Minneapolis among Continental's many $99 destinations - a happy jolt in that I hadn't known the largely Western-operating airline to have Minnesota business.
Once past the busy signal, I was met by a message that said in part, ''Due to the overwhelming success of Continental's new All American fare, our lines are busy.'' When the agent came on, I asked about New York-Minneapolis service. ''We don't fly New York-Minneapolis,'' she said. I mentioned the ad. There was a brief silence, and then came the confession:
''We can get you to Minneapolis and back for $198, $99 each way, but you will have to go through another city, like Denver. We don't serve Minneapolis from the East Coast.'' She acknowledged that Denver, far to the west and south of Minneapolis, was a novel routing point. ''I'm afraid,'' she said, ''it's because of the way the ad was run. It was misleading, but we couldn't exactly take it back. So what we have to do is create a connection.''
She said the same thing applies to the Florida cities mentioned in the ad. Because Continental doesn't fly from New York to Florida, one would have to be routed through Houston. Not many such tickets have been written, of course, because other airlines have bargain nonstops between New York and Florida. And in fact, as I was to learn with further sleuthing, there is an easier way than Continental's to get to Minneapolis and back for $198.
Northwest Airlines, which has a near-monopoly on service in the upper Midwest , obviously feels it doesn't need to slash its New York-Minneapolis fares. Northwest's lowest was $292 round trip, $146 each way, with a limited seating stipulation. Republic quoted the same rates. My next call, to US Air, produced a Pittsburgh, but the wait is just 20 minutes or so. Also, only a set amount of $ 99 seats is put aside on each flight. I settled, finally, on a United Airlines one-stop $99 with even fewer restrictions.
Not all of the airlines have gone willingly into the $99 arena. Continental and Pan Am, both financially troubled companies reaching out for any strategy that will keep them aloft, have by their actions forced the others to follow suit.
''Very simply,'' said an airline industry-watcher, ''the two are trying to generate cash flow. Braniff tried, in vain, to do the same thing when it offered two-for-one fares to try to meet its payroll. Pan Am's future depends on what it does this winter. Some of the others, like United, object strongly to the whole idea, claiming that such low fares actually lose an airline money.''
The aim of the $99 fares is of course to fill seats that would normally go empty, thus making up some of the considerable operating costs of long-haul flights. ''It varies, but generally speaking an airline figures its break-even load factor - the point at which it makes money - is somewhere between 50 and 65 percent,'' said my friend the observer. ''In other words if the plane is less than 50 to 65 percent full, it loses money.
''Of course there are other ways to reduce operating costs. One way unfortunately has been to cut jobs, so that one person is doing the job of two. Delta switched from serving drinks in bottles to cans to save on weight, and therefore fuel. Some of the foreign airlines have scraped paint off their planes to lighten the load. And the new jets, the 767s and the 757s, are more fuel-efficient than the planes now in service.''
Whether the bargain fares will save the airlines is still unknown. But Pam Am , which recently announced it had lost $485 million in 1982, did report a traffic increase of 18.8 percent for January.
Meanwhile, we the people are off and winging. Most of the $99 fares that went into effect on Feb. 11 have certain restrictions built in - 7-day advance booking, a stay of 7 to 14 days, a limited number of seats on each plane - but nothing that the footloose traveler can't put up with. Pan Am, always seeking the edge, is adding routes in the weeks ahead and offering $99 introductory fares. In fact the carrier will start $99 service between New York and Minneapolis. OK, there's a stop in Detroit. But that beats going through Anchorage.