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Christmas Gift Guide
Tech Industry

Online flight planning easy, but not a sure bargain

In this seller's market, with demand high and the number of seats low, there is little reason for the airline industry to reduce prices.

Holiday travelers can find valuable information on the Internet such as real-time weather reports but will likely be out of luck if they haven't purchased their plane tickets already.

An informal survey of executives at several airline and Internet travel services indicated that few inexpensive tickets are available the day before Thanksgiving, traditionally the busiest travel day of the year. In this seller's market, with demand high and the number of seats low, there is little reason for the airline industry to reduce prices.

"People can probably find seats, but it's going to be expensive," Travelocity CEO Terry Jones said.

With Jupiter Communications projecting that the industry will generate $6 billion this year, many are eager to see how the travel sites will perform during the holidays. However, although online air ticketing is growing, it still makes up only a fraction of total sales.

Making matters worse, the online travel industry is bound by the restrictions of the airlines, which often offer limited capacity because of stringent budget cuts in recent years. With tighter schedules, carriers no longer must resort to drastic price cuts to fill their planes, American Airlines spokesman Tim Smith said. Instead, they can promote discounts on specific routes or during certain times of the year.

"The airlines tend to move together," Jupiter Communications analyst Melissa Shore said. "When one offers a discount, they all do. When one creates a successful strategy, they all follow."

The online companies have no more access to finding low-cost fares than anyone else, Jones said. They possess software and hardware that make comparing prices more convenient, but they are restricted to comparing prices from airlines with which they have struck partnerships.

Still, Jones and others say, none of this will discourage some die-hard online shoppers.

Smith said shoppers also have begun patrolling the American Airlines' site this week. "It's the bargain hunters comfortable using the Internet who will wait for any last-minute deals," he said.

The same is true of the online travel agencies. Diane Taylor, an account manager at Expedia, said that searches of the site by people planning last-minute trips has risen in the last two days, and she expects the number will mushroom today.

Even in such lean periods, agencies do have at least one key advantage over many of their airline counterparts: extensive flight, airport, weather and other information.

Microsoft's Expedia, for example, offers customers flight arrival and departure information through its Web site, allowing travelers to avoid lengthy waits at the airport. Travelocity also displays a real-time weather map of the United States, complete with airplane symbols to show where a selected aircraft is in flight. The company will page customers or send email should their flights be delayed.

Many major airlines provide real-time flight information as well. Delta AirLines, United Airlines, American Airlines and TWA all let customers enter their flight number and follow its progress online. To check the weather specifically in local cities across the country, Weather.com and USA Today give five-day forecasts and Doppler readings.

But whether travelers can find the best prices remains to be seen. A search for the best price on a flight leaving San Francisco Airport to Los Angeles today turned up a round-trip fare for $345 dollars. "That's a good price for this time of year," said Suzi Levine, product manager for Redmond, Washington-based Expedia.

Without ordering in advance, the cost for buying the same ticket during an off-peak period could range between $160 to $600 according to one travel agent.

Even Expedia's Taylor said the high cost of flying led her to cancel a trip this weekend. "You can't find a decent price right now," she lamented. "I couldn't, and I'm in the business."