Deregulation aloft: unfairness on fares

IN the deregulated skies of the mid-80s, the air traveler is no longer getting a fair deal on fares. Yes, cheap fares are available. Some 90 percent of all passengers now fly at discount rates. But the restrictions on such fares have grown well beyond the traditional advance purchase and minimum-stay limits of years past. To buy such tickets, today's passengers must take unfair and unacceptably high financial risks.

If, after booking and paying for a ticket, the traveler needs to change plans for any reason other than one of the magnitude of a death in the family, he must forfeit 25 to 100 percent of the price as a service charge. Nonrefundable tickets, if unused, are completely worthless; they cannot be given or sold to another. Some insurance firms report a brisk business in nonrefundable fare coverage.

Competition may be fierce among airlines, now that Washington no longer regulates fares and routes, but the airlines now have a virtual monopoly hold on the long-distance travel industry.

Discount rates with penalties are the only bargain fares available. Meantime, regular coach fares have quietly skyrocketed, to the point where only business travelers can afford them. A round-trip coach fare between Boston and Los Angeles is now $1,134, a price that used to allow as many as three or four round trips to Europe.

Small wonder that the demand for discount fares remains strong. Airlines keep offering such fares, advertising them heavily, in the hope of attracting new passengers to fill as many empty seats as possible on each flight. By a computerized system of ``capacity control,'' the airlines are constantly juggling seat prices on each flight as demand changes. Yet the industry readily admits that on popular flights, few if any discount seats are offered. Congress and Ralph Nader's Aviation Consumer Action Project are pressing the airlines, in the name of fair advertising, to make a minimum number or percentage of seats available on each flight. The airlines are resisting.

Fairer rules on ticket sales could benefit both the customer and the airline. If a passenger cancels his reservation well before the day of his flight, the airline is free to sell that seat profitably again. Why shouldn't the passenger who is willing to give such advance notice be entitled to a goodly share of his money back? At the very least, he should get partial credit toward another trip on the same airline. In no case should a 100 percent penalty be extracted. Airlines, after all, can cancel flights for any mix of reasons and detour sharply from scheduled arrival and departure times with little obligation to the inconvenienced passenger.

Today's air traveler deserves a fairer break on both fares and service. If the airlines cannot or will not give it, the federal government should hold them accountable.

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