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Low-fare battle escalates

By Ed Perkins, Tribune Content Agency

You’ll have some new low-fare options for air travel next summer. But you won’t always pay less than you did last year. And new — or at least new-to-you airlines — will entirely be based outside the United States.

Lots of “Wow” Fares. Expect lots of promotions for intercontinental trips that feature “insanely low” prices such as $89 to Europe or Asia. But don’t expect to get a round trip for less than $200. Those very cheap seats will be strictly limited: The U.S. Department of Transportation requires that any airline advertising low come-on fares must have a “reasonable” number of seats available at those fares, and “reasonably” unofficially translates to 10 percent or so. So the real cheapies will sell out quickly. And those ultra-low fares will apply only one way; you’ll pay more for the return trip. Also, you’ll pay extra for everything — checked baggage, seat assignments, and such. Still, at least some intercontinental trips will be great bargains. This year will be a great time to visit overseas.

Low-Fare Asia — sort of. For the first time ever, a low-fare Asian airline will fly to the U.S. But it will start out very small: AirAsia X will fly from its base in Kuala Lumpur to Honolulu by way of Osaka four times a week, starting in late June. It’s talking about introductory fares from Honolulu as low as $99 to Osaka and $149 to Malaysia, although regular fares will almost certainly be higher. For now, these flights seem to be aimed at the Japanese market, where Honolulu is a big destination from Osaka. But if the new service works out for AirAsia X, you might well see it in Los Angeles or San Francisco before long.

The Norse Invasion Continues. Norwegian seems to be going all-out for U.S. flights as quickly as it adds new planes. In addition to its ongoing transatlantic 787 services from Scandinavia, London, and Paris, the line promises flights from a new Barcelona hub to Fort Lauderdale, Los Angeles, Newark, and Oakland this summer, and it will start new flights from Copenhagen to Oakland in March. Beyond those 787 flights, Norwegian plans to start flying from Ireland to Newburgh/Stewart Field, for New York, and Providence, for Boston, with new longer-range and very economical 737s. Also, look for Iceland-based WOW to add new routes to the U.S.

Other Europeans. Lufthansa subsidiary Eurowings will fly to Germany from Las Vegas, Orlando, Miami, and Seattle. XL Airways will continue its flights to Paris from Los Angeles, Miami, New York, and San Francisco. And IAG has indicated its low-fare Vueling unit will start flying to Barcelona from the U.S.

Domestic Flights. The big deal for travel within the U.S. is that three of the four giant lines, American, Delta, and United, will be offering sub-economy bare-bones fares that include nothing extra and are totally nonrefundable. So far the announcements have centered strictly on domestic flying, but if the European lines become too troublesome, the U.S. lines will certainly do something. Southwest, Alaska, and JetBlue have not followed. And Allegiant, having run out of “nowheres” for its traditional “nowhere-to-somewhere” business model, is starting to compete directly with the giants.

Cheap Flights, Minimal Product. So far, only AirAsia X and XL Airways have downgraded their “hard” product: Those lines’ A330s have nine seats per row rather than the usual eight, and if you thought 737 seats were the tightest you’d ever see, the nine-across 330s provide a whole new level of discomfort.

The other European low-cost lines retain a standard hard product; they cut the “soft” product to minimal levels. That means you’ll pay extra for just about everything.

The U.S. lines are also focused on soft product, with fares that are truly nonrefundable and, on American and United, charges for use of the overhead baggage bin. The conditions on those basic fares are so onerous that most of you will pay more than you used to pay for a “standard” ticket — which is just what the giant lines have in mind.

(Send e-mail to Ed Perkins at eperkins@mind.net. Also, check out Ed’s new rail travel website at www.rail-guru.com.)

(c) 2017 TRIBUNE CONTENT AGENCY, LLC. — February 21, 2017

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