IT is a David-versus-Goliath story.
Former travel agent Terry Trippler is taking aim at the eight major United States airlines. He is not saying they have done anything illegal, just unethical.
In addition to offering aboveboard gimmicks such as discount coupons and one-day deals, the air carriers hold ''bogus'' sales on some flights while raising prices on others, Mr. Trippler alleges. They also, he says, engage in deceptive practices in advertising and changing tickets, and poorly disseminate airline rules. Trippler records his findings in ''The Airfare Report,'' a watchdog publication he and his wife, Lynn, publish each month in Minneapolis.
For their part, carriers emphasize the dog-eat-dog nature of the business and the need to provide enticements to help fill underbooked planes. Discount upstarts like Southwest and Alaska's Markair have only aggravated the situation for the major airlines by offering lower fares.
Trippler claims the deceptive sales work like this: Just before announcing a ''50 percent off'' sale, for example, an airline jacks up the price of a ticket. So the ''sale'' price is often the price before it went up. The airline notifies the press of the discount, and the ''sale'' is reported as news. Within 48 hours, virtually all other American carriers have offered identical fares.
''I find it difficult to believe [the airlines] have just increased their prices -- which is their right -- and then someone says: 'Hey, let's have a sale,' '' he says. ''I call this misleading to the public.''
Dave Oppermann, editor-publisher of ''The Travel Alert Bulletin'' in Saginaw, Mich., adds: ''Unfortunately, we live in a 'let the buyer beware' climate. The public has to really be on their guard.... The public doesn't care how much [the price] went up or down but who has the lowest fare they can purchase.''
''This is a highly competitive industry,'' responds Rick Weintraub, a USAir spokesman. ''We traditionally follow what the other airlines do to remain competitive. Most sales we initiate are major [holiday or seasonal] sales.'' He denies that USAir inflates pre-sale prices.
Meanwhile, the Department of Transportation's consumer protection office has been tracking ''percentage off'' sales under the ''Travelers First'' initiative started in January. The program involves the scrutiny of airline advertising, frequent-flyer programs, scheduling, and booking.
''It's difficult to determine what the 50 percent is off of,'' says DOT spokesman Bill Mosley about the percentage-off sales. The airlines have been notified they are being watched, but no fines have been levied.
TRIPPLER claims fares are discounted to raise a smoke screen to those that are increased. ''When a sale is announced, hold onto your wallet. [The sale] diverts people's attention.''
He also objects to other practices he contends favor the airlines over the consumer:
*Advertising. Air carriers are permitted to advertise low one-way fares, even though a round-trip ticket must be purchased in order to get that fare. (The ad's fine print states this condition.) ''It's like advertising for one shoe -- a retail store wouldn't get away with it,'' Trippler says.
*Exchanging tickets. When a sale price drops further, a travel agent tells the ticketholder he has one day to change the ticket to get the lower fare. If the agent is holding the ticket, this is not a problem; but if the ticket is in the mail, it might be received too late to get the discount.
*Reimbursement policy. In exchanging a regular ticket for a sale-price ticket, the customer faces a ticket-rewriting fee -- $50 for Northwest, TWA, and United; $35 for American, America West, Continental, Delta, and US Air. Or a customer can accept a credit voucher for the difference between the two fares that must be used toward another ticket within a year.
In the airlines' defense, USAir's Mr. Weintraub credits the companies with providing a mechanism for customers to benefit from a sale even after a ticket has been bought.
*Informing the public about airline rules. The customer is at a disadvantage if his travel agency doesn't know the rules and can't advise him if there is a problem. Only a small fraction of the 35,000 US travel agents receive the airline rules through the Airline Tariff Publishing Company, the clearinghouse for all rules and ticket prices that is co-owned by the airlines, Trippler says.
So he is mailing to agents brochures outlining general airline rules. They can be sent to customers with their tickets.
But while everyone who flies may not know, for example, the maximum size of a carry-on duffel, frequent travelers certainly do know the rules, Weintraub maintains. ''There's no intention to hide the rules. We approach it as a consumer business; we have to [help] the consumer,'' he says.