Airlines are slashing prices on some flights, hoping to lure some travelers this holiday season and into the New Year.
But like all things with airlines, the situation is changing rapidly.
For instance, the clock is ticking on JetBlue Airways’ four-day online fare sale. So if you want airfares as low as $109 each-way from the Bay Area to New York you’ve got until Thursday to book it at www.jetblue.com.
For $30 more on the same route, fly Virgin America, which trumpeted its holiday fare sale today.
And if you favor Southwest Airlines? Every Tuesday the airline announces a fare sale on the click-and-save page of its Web page. Today’s site told of fares from $49 to $109 on select routes around the country.
Deep discounts for airline fares come as no surprise, particularly since 2008 was an awful year for the industry. But the devastation in the industry – coupled with falling oil prices – means bargains should be bountiful and continue into the New Year, just as demand slumps.
“Of course, we have low fares all the time,” said Marilee Mcinnis, a spokeswoman for Southwest. “But the economy is on the minds of everyone – and everything felt like we were in a recession and now we know it’s official.
“There’s a lot of trepidation out there,” she said.
That trepidation was borne out in the airlines’ recent statistics.
Southwest Airlines today reported its load factor – the percentage of seats filled – for November was 63.2 percent, compared with 69.3 percent for the same period last year.
With sagging numbers like that, at Southwest and at all the other airline struggling in a down cycle, an effort is under way to entice a traveler who might otherwise not travel. The carriers hope to trigger impulse buying – because that is one less empty seat at the end of a year when industry losses will be somewhere between $3 billion and $6 billion, after the math is done on climbing and then falling jet fuel prices, said David Castelveter, a spokesman for the Air Transport Association, a trade association for the major airlines in Washington, D.C.
“The industry is very competitive and I think everyone is competing for guests. That is the nature of the industry for sure,” said Abby Lunardini, a spokeswoman for Burlingame-based Virgin America, the only California-based airline, which launched in August, 2007.
Despite the economic climate, Virgin America’s business was relatively strong last week – up to a 96 percent load factor on Sunday, said Lunardini.
Nevertheless, tough times demand deals. The Virgin America sale requires travelers to buy tickets on its Web site, www.virginamerica.com, by Dec. 11 and commence traveling on or after Jan. 6. All travel must be complete by March 1. The deals include $59 fares one-way between San Francisco and three destinations – Las Vegas, San Diego and Seattle.
In addition to the $109 transcontinental fares at JetBlue, the carrier has one-way fares as low as $79 between Austin and Long Beach or $89 to San Francisco. The JetBlue tickets must be purchased by 11:59 p.m. Mountain Daylight Time Thursday and the travel must take place between Jan. 7 and Feb. 11.
“We have always had sales around the New Year but people are just paying more attention now,” said Alison Croyle, a JetBlue spokeswoman. “It’s definitely a great transcontinental deal.”
These sales are rare pieces of good news for the industry. Eight airlines went out of business this year, capacity was cut by 10 percent and there will be 36,000 job losses in the industry by year’s end, said Castelveter, of the Air Transport Association. “The impact of high fuel prices has been cataclysmic to the industry,” he said.
Also today, executives of four major U.S. airlines – Delta Air Lines, Southwest Airlines, Northwest Airlines and American airlines – said they were ready to cut more flights, after seeing signs of slumping travel demand.
U.S. airlines have been helped by a sudden drop in jet fuel prices, and they already cut capacity this fall to further reduce costs and drive up fares.
But traffic has fallen even faster than the supply of seats, especially since the stock market went into a nosedive.
“October was a bang-up month, almost unexplainably strong,” said Southwest Airlines Co. Chairman and Chief Executive Gary Kelly. “The trends changed in November.”