Saturday, February 3, 2001
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Posted on: Saturday, February 3, 2001

ATA ends ticketing rules for low fares

Advertiser Staff and News Services

Flying these days usually means accepting a load of restrictions along with attractive airfares.

But Indianapolis-based American Trans Air is abolishing advance purchase requirements and minimum stays in hopes of making its fares more appealing to travelers.

The policy, announced Thursday, will be closely watched but is unlikely to catch on with the majors. And it isn’t expected to have much effect on travel to Hawaii, where ATA is a major player, flying to Maui and Honolulu from the Mainland as many as 34 times a week.

The change means the same low fares that are charged to early bookers could be available up until the plane leaves. But there’s a catch. The policy is "capacity controlled," meaning only a certain number of seats on a given flight will be at the old advance-purchase fares.

In Hawaii the effect of the change will be minimal, ATA and travel industry officials say. That’s because the vast majority of seats on ATA’s flights to the state — 21 a week from fall to spring, 34 a week in the summer — are bought by Pleasant Hawaiian Holidays, one of the biggest tour wholesalers in the islands.

Pleasant Hawaiian, which isn’t affected by the pricing policy change, sells all but a few seats on every flight, excluding four weekly flights from Phoenix to Honolulu and Maui.

Even for the few tickets sold by ATA, the price of an advance ticket can still be lower, the same, or even more than a last-minute fare thanks to "capacity control," the complex computerized pricing system also known as yield management.

For example, yesterday a nonstop Chicago-Honolulu round-trip ticket with a one-week stay could be had for $753 with a two-day advance purchase, and $673 nine days in advance. A similar Chicago-Honolulu ticket was $808 for either one-day or eight-day advance purchases. But the price for a Maui-Chicago flight was $723 three days in advance and $983 if bought eight days early.

"It’s a gimmick that’s been used by struggling airlines in the past," said Thom Nulty, chief executive officer of Navigant International, a large travel agency network.

ATA’s parent, Amtran, had a net loss of $15.7 million in 2000. ATA, which flies older jets, was hurt by high fuel prices. It plans to replace its planes with new jets by 2002.

Experts say the leisure travel airline is making a bid for more business travel. Lifting restrictions makes its fares more appealing to business fliers, whose trips are often made on short notice and include no Saturday night stays.

Business fliers also generally pay the highest fares for flying at the last minute, and have stayed away from carriers such as ATA that don’t offer the frequency and perks they prefer.

Leisure travelers may find they prefer tickets without strings attached, regardless of price. "Simpler is always better," said Karen Hughes, marketing vice president for Pleasant Hawaiian.

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