AIRLINES TRY TO FILL EMPTY SEATS BY CUTTING FARES

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There they go again.

Airlines just can't stay away from discounting to fill what would otherwise be empty seats.

Northwest Airlines is offering an international sale for spring and summer travel with fares as much as 30% off.

Then Trans World Airlines set off a domestic price battle with savings of up to 35% for travel through May 15. The carrier, as a bonus, slashed fares up to 45% between Northeast cities and Florida through Feb. 15, citing severe weather as one reason.

"We have not been the ones out there with consistent fare promotions, but we saw ... that people in the Northeast who have to put up with the cold weather might want to get away," said Don Fleming, TWA director of corporate communicatons.

It doesn't take much to get a sale going these days: Elvis' birthday, cold weather, you name it.

These back-to-back sales are redefining airline marketing. Rampant discounting is turning the industry into a commodity business like never before. Brand loyalty is becoming history except for those business travelers faithful to their frequent-flier perks.

The new formula is relatively simple: Launch a fare war-preferably during the weekend to surprise competitors and capture advertising lead time. Virtually all carriers match the sale and hustle to get their price ads in print. The sale initially is slated for four or five days but then a competitor comes in and extends it in hope of selling a few more seats. Wait a few weeks and the process begins again.

"Only a fool would buy a leisure ticket that wasn't on sale," said an airline marketing executive. "The airlines have proven they're willing to run back-to-back sales so why not wait? Airline seats are becoming more of a commodity than ever. More and more of marketing budgets are devoted to spot-sale support and less to brand building. There's just less left over for maintaining or building brands."

Still, airlines aren't backing off brand building entirely, though it's questionable how effective that will be in an increasingly price-oriented market.

American Airlines and Delta Air Lines are targeting business travelers with new image campaigns. But even business travelers are becoming more price-oriented, admitted an American spokesman, as corporate travel budgets get squeezed.

Craig Pavlus, president of Pavlus Travel Marketing, Stamford, Conn., said the business continues to be commodity-driven. "It's a low-price environment, and that will put more pressure on full-service carriers to compete in the marketplace. As much as they want to drive brand loyalty and raise fares, there are just too many seats in the sky."

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