Dubious discounts and flying hassles. Does cheaper air fare compensate for a higher aggravation factor?

Let the flier beware. Air travel has gotten cheaper - but not easier. It is trickier than ever to sort through fare restrictions and to find a flight that takes off when scheduled, arrives on time, at the right destination, with bags intact.

Airlines say they are doing a better job than ever at giving everybody what they want most: lower fares. And so far the industry has hit that mark by providing nearly 90 percent of air travelers last year with seats discounted an average of 60 percent. Even airline critics concede that is pretty good.

But to get those discounts, travelers are paying a price - perhaps not measured in dollars but still quite tangible in wasted time, meetings missed, bags lost, and general aggravation.

Credibility question

``Consumers have become fed up with the poor quality of air transportation,'' a knowledgeable observer said recently. The observer went on to say: There is ``no doubt that the criticism of the industry is well deserved.''

The observer: American Airlines.

American's commentary was made in a petition to the Department of Transportation, urging that consumers get more complete information about air travel.

Last week, Elizabeth Dole, the secretary of transportation, issued letters of warning to the nation's major airlines telling them to do a better job serving travelers or risk tighter enforcement of rules already in place intended to encourage proper passenger treatment.

A recent spot check by the Department of Transportation, for example, found routine takeoff delays of 20 to 30 minutes at Atlanta's Hartsfield International airport. The problem really is that airlines know, to begin with, that the delays are likely to occur because of limited airport capabilities. But they list ``departure times'' inaccurately anyway. Such deceptions have become familiar to frequent fliers who know they must take earlier flights than they want because a later, more convenient flight won't leave on time or arrive when scheduled.

``Sitting on the aircraft is far less comfortable for passengers than waiting in the terminal,'' said a document accompanying Mrs. Dole's letter. ``It also prevents passengers from investigating potential travel alternatives.''

Advertising `gobbledygook'

Of course, what Mrs. Dole denounced last week is nothing new. Many travelers have known for years about takeoff delays, lost or damaged baggage, and dubious or ambiguous discount fare advertising. Congress is considering making the airlines disclose more information about delays.

``Airlines are giving the public the impression that they are offering better service than they really are,'' said Cornish Hitchcock, legal director of the Aviation Consumer Action Project, at a congressional hearing last week examining airline advertising practices.

Mr. Hitchcock cites ``heavily advertised discount fares that are always `sold out' whenever you call; changes in frequent flier eligibility requirements; flight delays; cancellations (including flights that are canceled for unexplained `mechanical difficulties,' when the real reason appears to be inadequate passenger loads.''

Despite these problems, many naive, less frequent air travelers still assume they can get the advertised fare without much problem.

``If an airline is going to advertise fares which emphasize price, it is reasonable for travelers to assume that by acting diligently, they will have at least a realistic opportunity to purchase the fares being advertised,'' Hitchcock said. ``Recent experience suggests that this is not always happening, and some of the advertising comes very close to `bait and switch' tactics.''

The Department of Transportation is charged by Congress to enforce rules intended to ensure that airlines uphold their end of the contractual obligations each ticket carries. An airline can be fined as much as $1,000 a day for each violation of federal aviation consumer protection regulations. Last year there were a record 10,377 air traveler complaints filed with the Department of Transportation. Some 415 million passengers flew last year - up from 275 million in 1978. In April, the office received nearly 2,000 complaints, more than double the number in April 1986.

This is occurring, experts say, as more Americans take fewer long vacations and instead fly on three- and four-day ``break-ations.'' On these, a bag that arrives a day late can ruin the trip.

Sorting through restrictions

And then there's the confusion - confusion over the myriad fare options and cancellation penalties that apply to discount tickets with 60-day, 30-day, 21-day, 14-day, 7-day, or 2-day advance purchase requirements. Some are fully refundable, some are partly refundable, and most new 2-day advance purchase fares are not refundable at all. If you change your mind, you lose your money. Much of the public has yet to comprehend that the airlines really won't give them their money back if they buy a non-refundable ticket.

Almost all discount tickets have a litany of restrictions to encourage off-peak travel. Fifty or more ticketing options may exist for travel to even a single small city, says one travel agent. With so many options, it is still common to pay far more than necessary, despite discounts. Airline computers constantly gauge seats sold on virtually every flight to limit discounts or offer them at different times of the day and sometimes at the last minute if the plane isn't filling up.

So how does a traveler get through the current mess in good shape? Travel experts say understanding how the system works, the motives of the airlines, and having a good travel agent can help. But active participation on the part of the traveler is required.

A wary traveler has to take into account fares, scheduling, bags, and overbooking, says Daniel T. Smith of the Airline Passengers Association.

``Whatever obligations you have at the other end, do not book the most convenient flights,'' says Mr. Smith. ``When you are scheduling yourself and you absolutely have to be there [for a cruise, for example], first look at the most convenient time for you to arrive, then book the flight before it.''

Stalking the low fare

To dig out a good fare also requires research and not much regard for the newspaper ads, which are almost always hedged with ``gobbledygook'' and fine print, says one travel agent.

``For low fares, the rule of thumb is to get tickets as far in advance as possible,'' says Henry Sanz, a travel agent at Dirt Cheap Travel, a San Francisco travel agency. ``There's a lot of bogus advertising out there and I wouldn't pay much attention to it. The stuff they offer is frequently sold out way in advance - 60 days in advance.''

One problem with Mr. Sanz's early-ticket-purchase strategy is that your plans may change, and cancellation penalties take effect if you try to get refunds. Also, airlines may lower their discount fares even more to gain passengers as departure day approaches. So some analysts recommend buying at the last moment.

If a low-fare is more valuable than flexibility, then buy in advance - but remember that cancellation penalties often take effect. If flexibility is most important, a full-price fare may be more desireable, and if you don't use the ticket there is still a refund.

Defining travel goals is most important when dealing with a travel agent. Nearly 75 percent of all reservations are made with travel agents - and nearly everyone makes the mistake of simply asking: ``What is your lowest fare to...?'' The travel agent then mentions one or more fares and the client meekly accepts one of them.

``The strategy is to never take the first price they give you, or even the third or fourth, as the absolute best,'' says Maxine Manor, customer service manager for Best Fares, a newsletter based in Arlington, Texas. ``You have to keep digging and keep saying there's got to be a better fare, there's got to be a special. Often these fares are not even restricted fares. You've just got to be persistent.''

Ms. Manor says airline and travel agents viewing their computer screens aren't trying to cheat you when they say, ``This is the best we have.'' Many times it's only the best that they can find on the computer.

``The cheaper fares are always buried at the bottom of the computer file - way down at the bottom,'' Manor says. ``It may not be easy to find that, and they don't have an incentive to really.''

When working with a travel agent it will also benefit you to ask questions that frequent fliers ask, such as: Does Airline A fly where I want to go? What other airlines also fly there? How hot is competition between Airline A and other markets. What share of the market do they have? These may indicate which airlines are likely to have the best service and the lowest fares.

Eric Manor, marketing director at Best Fares, recommends buying a pocket copy of the Official Airline Guide and finding out about airline marketing codes, thus enabling travelers to ask better questions of travel agents and to find specific low fares on their computers.

``Most people ask, `What's the cheapest thing you can find?''' Mr. Manor says. ``The travel agent says, `Here's one, and here's one, and here's another.' What you need to say is, `What I want is a VE2X57,' which means this airline's fare requires a two-day advance purchase except Friday and Sunday.''

The `hidden cities' quest and other travelers' tales

It may sound like it's out of the movie ``Lost Horizon,'' but hunting for ``hidden cities'' is something practical just about any air traveler can do.

``We show what we call the `hidden cities' that are nothing more than the connecting flights that save a lot of money when you book your fares that way,'' says Maxine Manor of Best Fares, an Arlington, Texas, newsletter.

Finding hidden-city fares amounts to locating weak markets that airlines are promoting through low fares. Frequently an airline will offer a low fare, say from Boston to Kansas City. But the flight will stop briefly in St. Louis to pick up more passengers. Manor contends that if you want to go to St. Louis, it is perfectly legal and ethical to book a flight to K.C. (because you've paid for a legitimate ticket) and to simply get off in St. Louis. If you do that, however, be sure to have only carry-on baggage.

Another tip for the sometime traveler is to avoid buying flashy luggage. ``When choosing luggage, pick something serviceable,'' says Daniel T. Smith, a spokesman for the Airline Passengers Association. ``Don't pick Gucci or some designer brand that attracts a lot of attention, since it's more prone to being taken.''

Also for the uninitiated, if the airline overbooks the flight and offers free tickets in exchange for a ``volunteer'' willing to forgo the flight - be sure the tickets are confirmed, not simply standby tickets. Cash refunds are due from the airline if they overbook and can't put you on a flight that will arrive at your destination within an hour of the flight you were booked on.

``You have to go armed with questions and information of your own,'' says Eric Manor of Best Fares. ``The smartest thing to do is find a travel agent you can trust, who has been around a long time who is willing to search - and to search guided by your own logic.''

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