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Fliers still unsure about what America West is

Maybe it's the slow October travel season or the lull before airlines report their latest quarterly earnings.

Airlines haven't made much blockbuster news of late. But frequent fliers and commercial aviation buffs keep the pot boiling with gripes, rumors and oddball observations.

Here are some tidbits.

FISH OR FOWL? Just over a year ago, US Airways and America West Airlines combined to create a hybrid carrier: a low-cost airline like Southwest with perks like American or United.

Merging two very different airlines was no small feat. America West focused mainly on leisure travelers in the West, with a laid-back, polo-shirt-and-khakis attitude. US Airways, an East Coast power, had a strong and vocal following of buttoned-down business fliers.

Now, some frequent fliers are grumbling the new US Airways, run by America West executives in Phoenix, still hasn't figured out how to take care of high-paying business travelers.

Fares on the airline are neither simple nor consistently low like Southwest, says Art Pushkin, a top-tier Chairman's Preferred flier from Long Island, N.Y. And its service, he says, doesn't compare to higher-priced, high-service carriers.

First-class travelers don't get hot meals on flights under 31/2 hours, he says. US Airways loses and otherwise mishandles more baggage than any other major U.S. airline. Chairman's Preferred members chafe at a promotion that lets customers earn elite status by racking up points on the airline's credit card instead of counting only miles actually flown.

"It comes down to value," says Pushkin, an official in the group Frequent Fliers Organized and Committed to US Airways Success. (FFOCUS).

US Airways has found a niche between traditional airlines and low-cost carriers, says Travis Christ, vice president of sales and marketing.

Business travelers find expensive walk-up fares, he says, but save overall because the new airline eliminated the Saturday-night stay for deep discount, advance-purchase tickets, he says. They also get perks like first-class upgrades that aren't available on Southwest or JetBlue.

"I think we do a pretty good job of filling that middle ground," says Christ.

DON'T BLINK. Discounter Allegiant Air held a lightning-fast sale last week. The airline highlighted new service to and from St. Petersburg-Clearwater International Airport by selling $12 one-way tickets Thursday on outbound flights to 12 cities.

The sale lasted just 12 hours, from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. Allegiant placed an ad in the Times and spots on four local radio stations. The airport also sent alerts to Pinellas County employees, tourism partners and passengers on its e-mail list.

"It was such a cheap deal, we couldn't have it out there for two days," said Allegiant spokeswoman Tyri Squyres. Future sale announcements will be e-mailed to previous customers and subscribers on its Web site (www.allegiantair.com).

DALLAS ONE-STEP. With President Bush's signature on legislation easing limits at Dallas Love Field, Southwest Airlines is launching new, easier connections to the airport.

The law repealed the Wright Amendment, which allowed flights to Love Field only from airports in Texas and eight surrounding states. To fly from Tampa International, a customer has had to catch a flight to some place like New Orleans, get off the plane and board a later one to Love.

The Federal Aviation Administration Tuesday approved loosening the restrictions. The first step will allow one-stop flights through airports in the so-called "Wright perimeter" states.

Southwest was quick to react, saying it would sell one-stop flights from its home airport near downtown Dallas to 28 cities, including Tampa, starting as low as $99 each way.

The change should help bring down fares from the Tampa Bay area to Dallas. American Airlines now has the only nonstop flights on the route.

Steve Huettel can be reached at huettel@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3384.

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