Holiday Airline Fare Wars Break Out Early

SANTA'S elves may be stuffing stockings with airline tickets this holiday season.

This week, the major airlines kicked off the first fare-war of autumn by announcing discounted fares for the holidays. Northwest Airlines announced that it would take 40 percent off flights between Nov. 2 and Jan. 14 within the contiguous United States and Alaska. Meanwhile, Southwest Airlines, catering to a smaller market, is offering $39 one-way tickets for travel within California until March 2.

Tom Parson, editor of Best Fares magazine in Arlington, Texas, says that the current holiday fare-war has arrived two or three weeks ahead of schedule. ``I've never seen a fare-war this early,'' he says. ``It's sort of like a miracle on 34th street.''

But before you start crossing names off your holiday list, don't forget to read the fine print. The Northwest sale, for instance, offers the best savings only if you travel on certain days, usually midweek. The deadline for ticket purchase is by midnight Oct. 28. Southwest's discount tickets require a 21-day advance purchase. Both sales are being matched by most of the major airlines.

Lee Howard, president of airline economics international, an aviation consulting firm in Washington, says that the current fare discounts are slightly lower than usual for sales this time of year, although they have more restrictions. ``There are fewer days that you can fly,'' says Mr. Howard.

Laurie Berger, editor of Frequent Flyer magazine in New Jersey, says that one alternative to scrambling for sales on major airlines is to opt for ``start-up'' carriers, such as Kiwi International Airlines or Tower Air.

These carriers offer regular no-frills service at significantly lower prices. The drawback to such airlines, says Ms. Berger, is that they schedule flights relatively infrequently, so if a flight is cancelled for some reason, you might not get to your destination on time. ``If your life depends on getting there that day, it's not the best choice,'' she says.

The start-up carriers only mean more competition for the major carriers. Tim Neale, a spokesman for the Air Transport Association, an industry group, says that air fares for 1994 have been about 4 percent lower than last year. The industry is doing better than it has in several years, Mr. Neale says, but ``the airlines know they have been attracting a large number of passengers because they have offered discounts.''

Best Fares editor Parson says there are sure to be more last-minute holiday sales among the airlines. Still, he advises those planning to travel to winter ``hot spots'' like Arizona, Florida, and Colorado to buy now and take advantage of the low prices.

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