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Air fare wars may benefit only a few

Airline fare wars aren't what they used to be.

A year ago, the bargains were easy to find. You could get $200 round-trips from Tampa to many major cities.

But the skirmish that Northwest Airlines started over the weekend is much different. The price cuts are smaller and there are fewer seats on sale.

That's how the fare wars have gone this year: short, controlled clashes instead of last summer's all-out, lengthy battle.

In the fare war last summer, prices were routinely slashed by 50 percent. Now, fares are only being cut by 20 to 30 percent.

"It's not the unbelievably cheap, greatly unprofitable fares we had last year," said Delta Air Lines spokesman Clay McConnell. Delta and other major carriers matched Northwest's cuts Monday, but only on routes where they compete.

That means you're out of luck if you're heading to Atlanta or another city that Northwest does not serve from Tampa. But you could save more than $100 on a round-trip to Portland, Ore.

Last year's fare war started in late May, a time when many people were making their summer vacation plans. McConnell said that this year, "it's taking place a month later and a lot of seats are already sold."

The airlines also are being more cautious about how many seats they sell at the cheapest prices.

Last year, they sold dozens of seats on each flight at the rock-bottom fares. Some flights were almost entirely filled by fare-war passengers. This year, there tend to be fewer deep-discount seats on each flight.

"They're not just doing a blanket, crazy type of thing like they did last year," said Janet Alexander, an agent with AAA Business Travel in St. Petersburg.

Travel agents last summer were working into the wee hours to book flights and make changes. This year, Alexander usually can go home at 5 p.m.

Analysts say the airlines learned some painful lessons last year.

"They know what they did to themselves last summer and they don't want to do that again," said Ed Scerbo, an analyst for AVITAS, a Northern Virginia airline consulting company. "It's taken them a full year to bring their head up above the waves."

Scerbo and other analysts are predicting there won't be another all-out war. Instead, airlines will continue to have brief sales when bookings are light and they need quick cash.

That cash can be important because many carriers still are struggling.

"We've seen this before: Raise cash to make the debt payments and make payroll," Scerbo said.

Phil Brannon, an analyst at the Mabon Securities Corp. investment firm in New York, said the latest cuts are "further evidence they are scrounging for all the cash flow they can get."

Northwest officials said last week the airline might have to ask a bankruptcy court to impose the cost savings it is seeking from unions. American Airlines said that it hasn't been attracting as many passengers as it had projected and that April-June earnings would be disappointing.

But travel agents say the airlines are hurting themselves by changing fares too often. The agents say people have become conditioned to wait for a fare war. Instead of booking a flight a month or two in advance, people wait until a good deal comes along.

"They're not going to book a reservation for September," Alexander said, "because they know the fares will go down."

_ Information from the Associated Press was used in this report.