Fly the Flexible Skies

NOT so many years ago, a would-be traveler with limited funds and last-minute plans for a trip could show up at the airport on the desired day of travel and hope for a ticket at a reduced price. Standby, the airlines called it - a convenient arrangement that helped carriers fill empty seats and helped budget-conscious customers willing to risk being turned away if a flight was full.

But then standby fares, or even three-day advance fares, virtually disappeared. Goodbye spontaneity. Hello nonrefundable fares, 30-day advances, and Saturday night stays. Passengers can find themselves forfeiting tickets if their travel plans change, or forgoing air travel altogether if they can't afford tickets without restrictions.

So it comes as good news that some airlines are beginning to ease those restrictions under certain conditions. Last week TWA introduced fares for business travelers that don't require a weekend stay or a minimum advance purchase. In addition, unused tickets are fully refundable. Prices are still higher than discounted advance-purchase tickets, but considerably lower than full coach fares.

In the international market, Virgin Atlantic offers a Latesaver fare between the United States and London, good even on the day of departure if seats are available. And many domestic carriers give discounts to passengers traveling on short notice because of family emergencies, provided they submit documentation.

Real life is not always as neatly preplanned as airlines seemed to assume. At a time when carriers are losing money and raising certain fares, and when customers are looking for economical ways to travel, offering lower last-minute prices - perhaps even standby fares - could help both parties ride out the recession.

Flying the "flexible skies" just might be an idea whose time has returned.

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