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Polis Report

Airfare Warfare

By Michael Learmonth

It's hump day. Amazingly, the calendar looks pretty clear for the weekend. This is good news, because a check of the old email reveals messages from American, USAir, TWA and Continental offering leftover (read: amazingly cheap) fares to Vegas, New Orleans or Orlando. The catch, of course, is you have to leave almost immediately and stay Saturday night. Would you drop everything and just go? The airlines are betting that someday, you just might.

In an effort to cut back even further on the number of flights that take off with empty seats, airlines are beginning to offer last-minute discounts on airfares to people who subscribe to email distribution lists. We're talking round-trip tickets to Dallas for $189 or $269 to New York.

Here's how it works: Customers enter their email addresses at the Web site of one of several airlines. Then, typically on Wednesday morning, the airlines send a list of available flights they predict will be undersold by the weekend. Obviously, these flights are not for the planner. They're for the wage-slave-normally-too-busy-for-a-vacation-but-desperate flyer who decides at the last minute to jump a plane for somewhere that's not here. Anywhere.

"We are dealing with a product that is literally perishable," explains Tim Smith of American Airlines. "We've found it appeals to working couples that have trouble planning. If something catches their fancy, they will respond."

Airlines offer regional flights on a rotating basis to keep the discounts unpredictable, i.e., noncompetitive with their bread-and-butter 14-day reserved fares. American, USAir, TWA and Continental have all launched last-minute email notification services. Look for other airlines to get on the ball soon.

For more airline links, look at Marc-David Seidel's page.

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From the February 6-12, 1997 issue of Metro

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