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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Changes in pricing at Delta Air Lines mark beginning

Joseph R. Perone Newhouse News Service

Does Delta Air Lines’ dramatic move to slash fares create a Wal-Mart of the skies?

Delta started the pricing revolution earlier this month by removing some restrictions and cutting fares an average of 44 percent in an attempt to beat discount competitors at their own game with everyday low prices.

American Airlines followed with a plan to match Delta in some markets. Northwest Airlines also introduced a fare program, and Continental Airlines cut prices in many cities it serves.

Much of the hullabaloo about Delta’s simplified pricing structure centers on walk-up fares that can be purchased for less than $500 one way. But customers will have to shop as diligently as ever to get the best price.

“You still have to check the airline Web sites, the travel sites and travel agents,” says Bob Harrell, president of Harrell Associates, a New York aviation consulting firm. “But understand, whatever you pay, it will be less than you paid last year.”

Don’t ignore online travel sites such as and If you find a lower fare there, check back with the airline; there is a good chance they will match it or beat it, especially when it involves a connecting flight to another carrier.

Consumers may find that not all routes by major carriers have been dramatically marked down. In some cities, discount carriers such as Southwest, AirTran or JetBlue will still have the rock-bottom fare.

For example, on a one-way, nonstop trip from New York to Chicago, American and Continental were charging $364 on a limited number of seats one day recently, with United charging nearly twice that at $741, according to, an airline information Web site. AirTran charged just $301.

The biggest changes for many travelers involve lifting restrictions on advance purchases or on changing a flight, according to Kendra Thornton, a spokeswoman for Orbitz, an online travel site.

“Customers can now book tickets within seven days of travel vs. the 14-day advanced purchase that we’ve been used to,” Thornton says. “The change fees have been lowered from $100 to $50, so travelers will now pay less if they need to change their travel itinerary.”

Some airlines cut the penalty in half, but others, such as American, maintain a $100 fee on nonrefundable tickets, according to fare watchers.

Travel experts say the best way to get a great fare is to be flexible. Departing on a Tuesday or Wednesday will generally be less expensive than departing on heavy business travel days such as Monday or Friday.

“Sometimes flying at a different time of day can affect the price, too, and help you save money,” says Amy Ziff, editor at large for the Travelocity Web site.

One of the selling points of Delta’s move is the end of the dreaded Saturday night stay – which the airlines created to prevent businesspeople from taking advantage of cheaper leisure fares.

Airlines can have hundreds of different fares on routes between any two major cities. They are based on when customers travel, where they sit on the plane and how far in advance they booked the flight.

Major airlines previously offered their lowest fares on a “capacity controlled basis,” meaning only a few cheap seats might be available on a given flight, says James Owers, a professor of finance at Georgia State University’s Robinson College of Business in Atlanta.

“(The low fare) was one-way, on the fifth Sunday of the month and only if it was raining,” Owers says. “That is why so many fliers have been frustrated by the fare structure of the majors.”

Making it easier to fly on short notice and less expensive to move up to first class means frequent-flier programs could be in for a shakeup. Airlines will be reluctant to give away seats if they can sell a first-class fare for half-price to a paying passenger.

“There will be many fewer upgrades available, and that will upset the road warriors who fly a couple of times a week,” Owers says.