‘Strike sale’ not in Northwest airline’s future

by Kane Loukas

Anxious travelers waiting to scoop up Northwest’s post-strike air fare deals are coming back from travel agents empty-handed.
While Northwest executives and union representatives were in closed-door meetings trying to end the strike this month, airline industry experts predicted that once the airline resumed service, it would offer substantially lower fares to win back lost business. But more than a week after Northwest planes returned to the skies, those low fares and fall travel specials have yet to materialize.
“Traditionally, strikes are followed by a slump in air fares,” said Jay Donoghue, editor of Air Transport World, an industry trade magazine. “So far, though, we haven’t seen any big sales from Northwest.”
Instead of slashing prices, Northwest is quietly sweetening their ticket prices. The airline is offering modest discounts of $20 to $50, triple frequent flier miles for some business passengers and the waiver of a few of the usual ticketing fees. The most significant money-saver is the reduction of the advance ticket purchase requirement from 14 to seven days.
Yet, students and most other vacation and leisure travelers will benefit little from these loopholes.
The savings will mostly affect business travelers, a group of consumers well known for making high-priced reservations on short notice. They’ll be the ones ducking under the lowered seven-day advance ticket prices, said Michele McDonald, editor of New Jersey-based Travel Weekly. For them, “the difference between fares can be huge,” she said.
For Minnesotans who remain angry with Northwest for botching their September travel plans and who feel the company should make an extra effort to win back business, the most likely response from the airline will be: Don’t hold your breath.
“One of the problems faced by the Twin Cities is that Northwest will rely on the power of its position there,” said Donoghue. The airline controls 53 of the 70 gates at the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport, the company’s hub. TransWorld Airlines, second in number of gates, controls four.
With Northwest’s controlling share of air travel in and out of the Twin Cities and with the approaching holiday travel season, major sales will be hard to come by in the next few months.
“We were hoping for something, but nothing has come across,” said Karl Peterson, an agent with Council Travel in Dinkytown. Already, he said, Northwest flights are being booked to their usual full capacity.
Despite the fractionally higher costs and the occasional missed sales suffered by travelers through Northwest’s Twin Cities hub or other major airline centers like US Airways’ in Pittsburgh, Penn., there are advantages to traveling to and from a hub.
“In New York, we are in one of the few places where there are a lot of carriers,” McDonald said from her nearby East Coast office. “Anywhere you go, you’ll have to make stops and switch airlines. You may have lower average fares, but it will be less convenient.”
For bargain travelers who are confused about or uninterested in analyzing what company has the most gates and how strikes will affect an economy ticket to Miami this December, there remains a rule sacred to bargain travelers: Plan ahead. It is the one money-saving strategy agents and industry analysts agree on.