Airline Deals On The Web

Enron founder Ken Lay and his wife Linda make their way to federal court in Houston, Tuesday, Jan. 31, 2006, for the Enron fraud trial. (AP Photo/Pat Sullivan)
Using cash discounts or frequent flier bonuses, airlines are increasingly promoting Internet ticketing as a way to give customers more options while cutting their own booking costs.

Continental Airlines Inc. is among the latest to entice consumers to buy online. Internet specials for selected flights purchased via computer are $20 less than the same flights bought through traditional means.

"We're encouraging people who use the Internet to go ahead and book their tickets," Continental spokeswoman Sarah Anthony said.

Electronic ticketing allows customers to more thoroughly mull their options and compare routes, which in some cases would be a tedious, time-consuming task if done over the phone or at a ticket counter.

"It does cost more to use (telephone) reservations, obviously, because you've got a person on the line with you," Anthony said.

Most airlines post online specials on their Web sites and many offer e-mail subscription services, periodically sending specials to interested customers. Some require enrollment in their frequent flier plans, however.

A check of major airlines' Web sites found several offering Internet-only specials and enticements for frequent fliers. Though domestic carriers lead the way, consumer watchdog Tom Parsons said international lines also are active online.

"For instance, on Cathay Pacific, two people could fly from New York to Hong Kong, with five nights' hotel included, for $998," said Parsons, who has several employees scan Web sites looking for deals to publish in his Best Fares magazine.

"If you want a good deal, I really believe there's a lot of value on the Internet," he said, adding that airlines tend to match each other's Internet specials, often opening the bargain fares up to all comers, not just computer users.

American Airlines, Delta Air Lines Inc., US Airways, United Airlines, Trans World Airlines Inc. and Continental frequent fliers can earn 1,000 bonus miles with an online purchase. Northwest Airlines Corp. offers 2,000 bonus miles for Internet buyers.

TWA's bonuses double with each purchase, with a maximum of 15,000 bonus miles if four tickets are purchased online.

United generates about $200 million a year in revenue through its Internet services, which also allows booking on other airlines, said spokesman John Molinaro. United also offers special software to allow computer users to access its resources directly, without using the Internet.

Southwest Airlines Co. rewards Internet customers by doubling the number of frequent flier segments they earn. Usually, Southwest passengers can earn a free round-trip flight anywhere after eight round-trips, but it takes just four flights purchased online.

Southwest recently extended the double-segment special through next April and uses other promotions to foster interest in its site, spokeswoman Linda Rutherford said.

"Every time e do something like that, the usage of Internet booking does increase," she said.

Written by Mark Babineck