Airlines fly into new year with a wave of fare sales

ATLANTA — A wave of fare sales has spread across the airline industry in the early days of the new year as the weak economy continues to put pressure on carriers to fill seats even after they drastically reduced capacity and some expressed willingness to cut more.

Many experts and even executives at some airlines had expected that after deep capacity cuts went into effect starting in September, the number of fare sales going forward would be fewer and farther between. But fuel prices have come down significantly, and the weak economy has eroded demand for air travel.

Even so, on average base airfares outside of the travel periods for the recently launched sale fares are higher today than in the last few years, said Rick Seaney, head of airfare research site He noted there were 30 attempted airfare hikes between summer 2007 and summer 2008, two-thirds of which were successful.

The fare sales just announced do not affect fees for baggage or other services charged by some of the carriers.

It's not unusual for airlines to announce fare sales in January — there were 17 or 18 announced in January 2008 — but what's different for several carriers this year is that the discounts are for travel extending as late as April, May or June, Seaney said. The sales last January were typically for travel through March, he said.

Seaney said he thinks uncertainty in the economy is the reason for the change.

"They're not sure what's going to happen at the last minute," Seaney said.

A handful of major carriers and discount carriers have launched fare sales since Dec. 31. Others are expected to follow with sales of their own, or to at least match discounts offered by rivals on competitive routes, Seaney said.

Dallas-based Southwest Airlines Co is offering a nationwide fare sale for travel from Jan. 15 to April 30.

American Airlines, the subsidary of Fort Worth, Texas-based AMR Corp., has a fare sale for travel within the United States from Jan. 14 to March 4, and from March 5 to April 30 at slightly higher fares.

Amd Chicago-based UAL Corp.'s United Airlines has discounts for travel within the United States from Jan. 14 to March 4 and for travel to several foreign destinations as late as April 30.

United's fare sale was launched Dec. 31. It has done a New Year's fare sale for several years now, spokeswoman Robin Urbanski said.

Most of the airline offers come with restrictions that vary by carrier from advance purchase requirements to minimum stay requirements to blackout dates.