SUMMER FARE GAMES UP FRONT
By Joe Brancatelli
May 8, 2013 --The bad news about summer travel: Those spectacular business-class deals to Europe, which spawned a decade of too-cheap-not-to-go holidays, have mostly disappeared.
The good news about summer travel: Airlines are dabbling in first- and premium-economy class sales and there are even the occasional too-cheap-not-to-go bargains to Asia.
First, some remembrances of wonderful summer business-class fares past. Back in 2002, you could score a round trip between Los Angeles and Paris for $2,100. In 2005, a business-class round trip between Boston and Zurich was selling for $2,500. The 2008 summer business-class sale from Continental Airlines offered this kind of pricing: $1,600 round trip from Newark to Belfast and $2,000 round trip between Houston and London.
Want the Proustian denouement about this year's summer fares? OK, but I warned you. Los Angeles-Paris is $3,977 round trip, nearly double the 2002 price. Boston-Zurich is $3,000 round trip. Continental is United Airlines [NYSE: UAL] now and this summer it's charging $2,790 for a Newark-Belfast run and $3,480 for Houston-London round trip.
Where did the business-class bargains go? No one really seems to know. Yes, jet-fuel prices have risen sharply. Yes, airlines have trimmed capacity to Europe. Yes, the fully flat business-class beds that are the industry standard today are much larger than the reclining seats of a decade ago so airlines must charge more for the in-flight real-estate. And, yes, Continental Airlines, which pioneered deep-deep-discount seasonal sales in the wake of the traffic plunge after the terror attacks of September 11, 2001 has soured on the concept in its new corporate branding.
But as an executive at a European airline told me last week: "Summer hasn't changed. Business travelers fly less on business, which means we have too many business-class seats. We still have too few [coach seats] for leisure travelers. And we still want to entice some of them to pay a little more to fly up front so we free up capacity down the back. So I can't explain why fares aren't compelling anymore."
Which is not to say some comparative summer business-class bargains don't exist or that the airlines have officially abandoned the C-class sales.
+Aer Lingus, for example, will fly you anywhere it goes in Europe this summer for between $2,299 and $2,699 round trip. But the Irish carrier only operates from three U.S. cities (New York, Chicago or Boston) and its business-class service only operates as far as Dublin. When you reach the Irish capital, you connect to the airline's all-coach flights to Britain and the continent. Still, the Aer Lingus summer sale is the best of the season.
As the business sales to Europe wane -- I once dubbed them The Last Taboo -- some Asian carriers have realized that slashing summer fares will entice a few affluent, bargain-hunting leisure travelers. How else to explain the very rare sale from Cathay Pacific, the Hong Kong-based carrier?
Cathay has cut the price of business-class seats this summer below $4,900 round trip from its four U.S. gateway cities: San Francisco, Los Angeles, Chicago and New York. Given that East Coast summer fares to Europe have surged past $3,000, a $4,900 round trip from New York to Hong Kong is an astonishing bargain. After all, Cathay's New York nonstops clock in at almost 16 hours (compared to 6-to-9 hours for most Europe runs) and the Hong Kong carrier's service is generally rated more lavish than U.S. or European airlines.
The cynical observer might also note that the once-compelling summer prices to Europe haven't disappeared so much as migrated to premium economy class. Although this fourth category of in-flight service remains largely unknown to the masses, savvy fliers know it offers good value for your fare dollar. That's especially true when carriers such as Air France offer summer prices that start around $1,800 round trip.
Yet the most fascinating development this year is the discounting in the most unlikely place (first class) from a most unlikely source (the culturally sale-adverse Germans). Lufthansa not only posts a business-class sale four times a year (during the historically slow Easter, summer, Thanksgiving and Christmas periods), but it also added an array of discounted first-class fares. That's no small matter, either, because Lufthansa currently has more long-haul aircraft equipped with first-class cabins than any other airline in the world.
Traditional first-class price between Los Angeles and Lufthansa's Frankfurt hub can run as high as $19,000. But the German airline now offers several advance-purchase first-class fares that start as low as $9,000 round trip. And the carrier's first-class sale for summer travel trims the fare to around $8,000. From New York to Frankfurt, Lufthansa's busiest U.S. route, the summer price is around $7,100 round trip. It's even cheaper if you use Lufthansa to fly first class to non-German destinations this summer. From New York to Barcelona, Madrid or Oslo, for example, the first-class passage is below $6,000.
"We have too many empty seats and there is a market out there" for discounted first class, says Carsten Woldt, Lufthansa's manager of pricing coordination. "Will seasonal discounts double our sales? Obviously not. It's a niche market. The trick is to make you interested."
ABOUT JOE BRANCATELLI Joe Brancatelli is a publication consultant, which means that he helps media companies start, fix and reposition newspapers, magazines and Web sites. He's also the former executive editor of Frequent Flyer and has been a consultant to or columnist for more business-travel and leisure-travel publishing operations than he can remember. He started his career as a business journalist and created JoeSentMe in the dark days after 9/11 while he was stranded in a hotel room in San Francisco. He lives on the Hudson River in the tourist town of Cold Spring.
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