The small-print lowdown on low air fares

Yes, friends, for only $89, you too can fly from New York to Los Angeles - and for only $29 you can fly from Boston to New York! Incredible?

No, not incredible, just smart marketing.

Have fare wars, in all of their consumer-gratifying glory, returned?

No. Just smart marketing.

Following the absorption on Sunday of People Express into Continental Airlines, an all-out effort is being made to tell all of you fliers out there that everything is all right - you can still find some great, really low fares - just like when People Express was still around.

And you certainly can.

United, American, Delta, and others have followed the lead of Continental in offering fares that are significantly below even already discounted seats. Some of the new ``MaxSaver'' fares first announced by Continental Airlines and Eastern Airlines last week are reportedly 40 percent below those carriers' already discounted fares.

Some benefits of the new fares include:

Fares discounted well below previous levels.

Two-day advance purchase necessary instead of normal 30 days.

Pressure on all carriers to offer similar deals.

But while MaxSaver-style fares are good news indeed for some fliers, a closer look turns up some drawbacks.

``There are so many restrictions on fares that it doesn't make it easy at all for the consumer,'' says Barry Gordon, president of the National Aviation and Technology Corporation, a mutual fund. ``Of course it's a good marketing ploy for them in the long run.''

For those skeptics who knew that $49 from New York to Chicago was too good to be true, it should confirm their suspicions to find that there are all kinds of strings attached to the new, lower fares.

A few such strings are:

These tickets, once purchased, are not refundable. This is the most important new twist. It allows the airlines to transfer the cost of changing your mind to you - not them. If you can't go for some reason, or you change your mind, you're stuck.

Some airlines require payment within 24 hours of making a reservation.

The low fare level is for purchases of round-trip tickets only.

Most of the fares also require staying over at least a Saturday night at their destination. This effectively keeps most business travelers, whose plans often change, from switching to the cheaper seats.

It may be difficult to find the new low fares when you want them for where you want to go.

Although Continental has, for the time being, set aside 40 percent of its seats for the new MaxSaver, Eastern allocated only 10 to 20 percent. Other airlines may have even fewer such seats, making it difficult to find a great deal on prime time flights to popular cities.

New Yorkers, for example, shouldn't plan to get the fares to Dallas, Florida, or Chicago on a Friday or Sunday. If you can travel Tuesday night, however, you may get the fare of your dreams.

And while some unrestricted fares to some destinations are still lower than they were a year ago, many fares, especially those to markets like St. Louis or Minneapolis, have risen sharply because of less competition.

``The media got sucked in on this one,'' says Robert Joedicke, an airline analyst at Shearson Lehman Brothers. ``This is not a fare war. This is a carefully constructed, very sophisticated marketing tool designed to fill seats in the off-peak winter period.''

Mr. Joedicke says sophisticated, computerized yield-management systems have allowed airlines to pinpoint every seat on every flight in an attempt to fill planes.

``This is a perishable product,'' Joedicke says. He also points out that the new fare offerings are aimed at attracting favorable publicity at a time that unrestricted fares are rising across the board as competition disappears in several markets. Some analysts expect Continental (owned by Texas Air, which also bought Eastern and People Express last year) to raise unrestricted fares in the spring.

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