EUROPE'S AT A PREMIUM THIS SUMMER
By Joe Brancatelli
May 1, 2014 --Concerned that the price of a mid-summer flight he had booked between Seattle and the South of France seemed far too low, a business traveler contacted me early last month. At slightly less than $1,600 round trip in business class, I, too, was befuddled by the fare, especially since the going rate at the pointy end of the plane has been north of $5,000 round trip to Cannes.
I passed the information along to a friend at the airline involved. He was nonplussed and checked with his internal pricing guru. "It's real," came the reply. "There was a fare war. But don't change anything. That fare is long gone."
Except it kinda, sorta wasn't. By the middle of April, another fare war over summer business-class fares erupted and prices plunged again. For a few days, some carriers sold round trips for as little as $1,999 between Los Angeles and Berlin, $2,050 between Denver and Vienna and $1,900 between Chicago and Stockholm.
Until a few years ago, sub-$2,000 business-class seats were a staple for carriers looking to fill premium cabins in summer, when frequent fliers tend to fly less frequently. Selling big chairs up front cheap to savvy leisure travelers made sense because carriers generated incremental revenue and freed up scarce coach seats to sell to other potential customers.
But as any traveler looking for a premium-class score across the pond this summer knows, the posted deals aren't that good. Business-class seats that sold for as little as $1,600 round trip from the Northeast at the turn of the decade are retailing for around $3,000 this summer. From Mid America, the South and the West Coast to Europe, where $2,000 round trip summer fares were once as plentiful as watermelons, prices up front have soared above $4,000.
Worse, the super-low-priced fare sales that we saw briefly in April are no longer sold with come-hither promotions on the airlines' respective websites. You have to get lucky, have a sharp-eyed travel agent or do deep-dive research using tools like ITA Matrix Search, which allows you to view fares on a route for an entire month.
There's logic behind the exploding cost of summer business-class fares. As airlines switched to lie-flat beds, they have less inventory to sell because the beds take up so much more room than the old reclining business-class seats. Major carriers also trimmed flights across the Atlantic, further cutting capacity.
Demand for the available business-class seats has skyrocketed, too. "We don't have to sell at the giveaway fares now," the pricing chief of one U.S. carriers told me recently. "Demand is there at about twice what we charged five years ago."
Then there's this: Some airlines are loathe to promote summer business class sales even on their own websites because their lawyers claim recent Transportation Department regulations are too picayune.
"Our legal team claims you must have at least 10 percent [of seats] available at the advertised price and you can't change fares or terms after the promotion starts," is how one airline marketing executive explained it to me. "Now we dump what we deem appropriate into the system and don't talk about it. Then we can pull inventory or change restrictions without repercussions. It makes the lawyers happy."
Of course, if it were any place but Europe in summer, the radical pricing swings and anal lawyers would be just another quirk of life on the road. But survey after survey says everyone continues to rate a European vacation as their dream holiday. Nothing seems to tamp down the demand, either.
Euro commanding nearly $1.40, the highest exchange rate since before 2008 global meltdown? What's a few extra bucks? The British pound off the deck and once again north of $1.70? The fantasies of Downton Abbey and Doc Martin can't wait. Tensions in Ukraine giving the continent a summer-of-1939 vibe? What's history when a nice plate of pasta or tapas await?
If you want to be in Europe this summer and you want to fly there in a premium class, allow me to point you in the direction of the best fares I've uncovered in recent days.
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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.
THE FINE PRINT This column is Copyright © 2014 American City Business Journals. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission. JoeSentMe.com is Copyright © 2014 by Joe Brancatelli. All rights reserved.