Airfares dominated discussion at the Utah Air Travel Commission's meeting this week and specifically the airfares chart that has been published for the last three Sundays in the Money section of the Deseret News.
The newspaper agreed to publish the data - sponsored by the commission and prepared by personnel at Salt Lake City International Airport - in an attempt to show the diversity of fares offered by competing airlines on the most popular routes and also to help educate readers on the savings in ticket costs available by scheduling flights in advance.If the weekly chart also spurred competition among the airlines to the benefit of Utah travelers, well, that would be just fine.
Is that realistic? David Barnes, former Salt Lake station manager for Trans World Airlines who is now with Murdock Travel, thinks so.
He said if he were still at TWA and saw these rates publicized and that TWA was much higher on a certain route, he'd pick up the phone to TWA headquarters and say `Hey, we're getting killed out here. We need to do something."
The commission has been made acutely aware over the past two years that air travelers, particularly business travelers, are frustrated, even angry over the soaring cost of air travel. Because of its strong presence in this market following its takeover of Western Airlines, Atlanta-based Delta Air Lines has taken much of the heat for the rising costs.
To this point, publication of selected available fares to the most popular destinations has brought the Deseret News neither boos nor kudos from the public. The few calls we've taken from readers indicate some are frustrated in not always being able to get tickets for the prices they've read in the Sunday paper.
As we've said from the beginning, this is unavoidable. The fares for available seats are gathered on Wednesday and not published until the following Sunday. Since many airline fares change without notice, sometimes minute to minute, there is no way to ensure their accuracy by Sunday. Even if they were compiled Friday night, there would be enough changes by Sunday to make some of them out of date.
So why publish them at all if they are not 100 percent accurate? As noted above, to show the range of ticket prices between the various airlines for any given flight and to graphically show the significant, even huge, savings that can be had by scheduling flights even a few days in advance. The traveler who picks up a phone this morning to book a flight to New York tonight must be prepared to pay an enormous premium.
Several airlines have objected to our listing their available fares on Wednesday rather than their published fares on that day. Fred H. Rollins, Salt Lake district director of marketing for Delta, was among them. In a letter to UATC Chairman Yan M. Ross, Rollins said running the published fares rather than available fares would eliminate disparities such as shown in the Salt Lake to San Francisco city pair two weeks ago where Delta was shown with a $310 fare compared to United Airlines' $686 fare.
"It is an unrealistic comparison which misleads the public," said Rollins. "Both United and Delta offer the same $310 fare on this route though United's seats at this fare had been sold (out). The public then can easily believe that United is $364 higher on the route than Delta. We, too, could be the victim of this same situation in future weeks."
Rollins' point was considered, but both airport executives and members of the commission agreed that the weekly newspaper table is more useful to people if it shows actual fares available on that day, not "published" fares that have no basis in reality because the seats have all been sold. (Some airlines will offer as few as five seats on a flight at a big discount which are, of course, immediately sold out. Nevertheless, those fares are "published" by the airline even though they effectively don't exist.)
There is a joke that aptly illustrates the "published" vs. "available" flap. A man goes in a butcher shop and asks for a pound of hamburger. Butcher says, That will be $1.95. Patron says, The shop down the street charges only 95 cents per pound. Butcher says, Well, why don't you buy it there? Patron says, Because they're all out. Butcher says, Heck, when I'm all out I sell it for 49 cents a pound.