Seat 2B By Joe Brancatelli
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Don't Be Distracted by Snacks
February 4, 2016 -- Flush with more cash than C. Montgomery Burns, the big airlines have adopted a new mantra: Let them eat stroopwafel--or speculoos.

In case you missed the earth-shattering, diet-busting news, United Airlines this week revived the practice of throwing coach customers a bone. Or, more accurately, a free stroopwafel, a Dutch cracker that looks like a waffle and is stuffed with a caramel-like filling.

Not to be outdone, American Airlines said it would revive free snacks in coach, too. Beginning this month, some American customers at the back of the bus will get a bag of pretzels or Biscoff biscuits, a Belgian shortbread cookie called a speculoo. All American Airlines customers will receive complimentary snacks in coach by mid-spring.

Delta Air Lines, which never totally dispensed with freebie coach comestibles, tried to one-up American and United by announcing a range of supposedly gourmet wrap sandwiches available for purchase.

Why the sudden largesse from an industry that is notorious for snarling service, fees for everything and an image even more repugnant than Mr. Burns, the Harry Shearer-voiced uber-villain of The Simpsons?

Money, of course. Thanks mostly to plummeting jet fuel prices, the nation's six largest carriers racked up about $20 billion in cumulative profit in 2015. And as I explained 14 months ago, they are disinclined to share the bounty with you in the form of lower airfares. So they're throwing you stroopwafels and speculoos in hopes you won't notice they're pocketing nearly every dime of the lower energy prices.

But all crass things must come to an end. Fuel prices are now falling so fast that the airlines are beginning to lower fares, too. Around the edges, at least. If you shop carefully, you'll get an honest-to-goodness bargain along with your free snacks.

Here's what to look for right now on the fare landscape.

New routes at low rates

Cheap jet fuel-carriers paid $1.57 a gallon last November compared to $2.67 in November, 2014--allows airlines to launch routes that were previously deemed financially unwise. It also permits them tout promotional rates aimed at grabbing your attention. That explains why JetBlue Airways this week announced it would start a daily nonstop in June between Los Angeles and Buffalo, New York. The introductory fare: $99 one-way, a price not seen for transcontinental flights in a decade. Similarly, Virgin America this week announced nonstops to Honolulu and Maui from San Francisco and Los Angeles. The opening rate: just $169 one-way.

Targeted domestic sales

Airlines long ago abandoned the practice of mounting systemwide fare sales and promoting them with newspaper ads featuring a laundry list of prices. If they're promoted at all, sales are listed at the airlines' proprietary website. Alaska Airlines, for example, is currently offering nonstops from its Seattle-Tacoma hub to Boston for as little as $169 one-way. Delta's website shows flights from Cincinnati to Raleigh-Durham for $179 each way. At Southwest, its sale page offers deals as low as $88 one-way between Dallas' Love Field and Memphis.

Find the unicorns

Boutique carriers that fly only one or two routes aren't as common as they were a decade ago, but these unicorns continue to offer startlingly good offers. La Compagnie, the Paris-based all-business-class carrier, is selling roundtrips from Newark to the City of Light or London's Luton Airport for as little as $1,300. With such a fabulous transatlantic fare for premium service, you can fly to Newark and connect from almost anywhere in the United States and save a bundle.

The continent for less coin

The U.S. dollar is in a good place against the euro (about $1.10). That means fewer European flying to the United States and that in turn means more pressure on airlines to keep fares low. Lufthansa is offering fares from Dallas/Fort Worth to Istanbul for as little as $769 roundtrip. If you don't mind changing planes in Warwaw, LOT Polish is selling Chicago-London flights for as little as $661 roundtrip. Finnair flights to either Moscow or St. Petersburg sell for less than $600 roundtrip with a brief stop in Helsinki. Even Italy is a bargain compared to recent years. Alitalia is offering nonstop flights to Milan for as little as $818 roundtrip and connecting service to Venice for as little as $868.

Into Africa

You won't find much of Africa on the route maps of U.S. carriers, but European airlines and the Big Three Gulf carriers operate extensive service and they are in a Titanic struggle for market dominance. That means substantial bargains and plenty of choice for U.S. flyers. Amsterdam-based KLM is selling flights to Cairo from Los Angeles or San Francisco for less than $750 roundtrip. Flights between Boston and Dar es Salaam, Tanzania cost less than $900 roundtrip. Emirates, based in Dubai, is offering roundtrips from Washington to Addis Ababba, Ethiopia for just $845 roundtrip. Dallas/Fort Worth to Johannesburg on Doha-based Qatar Airways is available for as little as $765 roundtrip.

Pacific pivot

Asia was once where airline deals went to die, but a slowdown in China and a dramatic oversupply of seats to India means bargains abound on long-haul Asia routes. Want some examples? United Airlines' roundtrip prices to China from its Denver hub start as low as $621. Hong Kong-based Cathay Pacific is selling nonstops from San Francisco or Los Angeles for as little as $787 roundtrip. Privately owned Hainan Airlines of China promotes its nonstop flight from San Jose to Beijing for as little as $739 roundtrip. Singapore Airlines' roundtrip from San Francisco to Seoul is on sale for as little as $689 roundtrip. If your goal is India, try Lufthansa. Its flights from Chicago to Mumbai cost as little as $709 roundtrip. Houston-Delhi is as low as $829 roundtrip.

Finding Fares Fast

Want to book the best deals without surfing the Internet interminably? Consult a good bricks-and-mortar travel agent or use the Matrix Airfare Search function from ITA Software, a division of Google. You can examine prices on exact dates or see a calendar of fares for a month at a time. The latter is more efficient because rates change dramatically based on day of departure or weekday versus weekend travel.


This column is Copyright 2016 American City Business Journals. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission. JoeSentMe.com is Copyright 2016 by Joe Brancatelli. All rights reserved.