AIRLINES FOLLOW RETAIL CUE ON 1-DAY SPECIALS

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"Attention, Kmart fliers. Special airfares. Today only."

After relying on a series of frequent short-term fare sales to entice travelers, airlines are taking a cue from retailers by coming up with one-day, usually unadvertised specials.

Until recently, this type of gimmickry hasn't hit the airline industry. But desperate times-about $10 billion in airline losses in three years-call for desperate measures to fill empty seats, particularly on Saturdays. The latest sign of those desperate measures was the one-day Elvis fares initiated Jan. 8 by Northwest Airlines. That Saturday would have been the King's 59th birthday, so round trip fares to Memphis, Tenn., from numerous cities were sold for as little as $39-as long as Elvis Presley fans made the complete journey that day.

Not to be outmaneuvered, American Airlines issued a $20 refund to get a reduced round trip fare of $59 to anyone dressed like Elvis. American, however, made the offer good only from three hubs-Dallas/Fort Worth, Chicago and Nashville. Within hours, a larger plane had to be scheduled from Dallas/Fort Worth for the first flight to Memphis that Saturday.

United Airlines made it even easier: Anyone on the Chicago-Memphis route who could sing all the words to "Jailhouse Rock" at the departure gate got a free upgrade to first class.

Alamo Rent-A-Car and Hilton Hotels horned in on United's act. Alamo customers in Memphis who flew United got a Cadillac daily rental for $29.99. Hilton offered a special weekend Elvis rate of $64 at the East Memphis hotel.

United added a kicker for Chicago-Memphis passengers: If the real Elvis, authenticated by identification, showed up for a United flight to attend his birthday party, all passengers would have flown free. He never showed.

Elvis or no Elvis, the stunt was a success for Northwest.

"We sold out on almost all of our flights," said a Northwest spokesman. "If this were the billboard top 40, it would have climbed to the top of the chart. Who cares that other airlines matched us? Just like Elvis, there are a lot of imitators but only one king."

Before Elvis fares were sighted, Northwest began a similar offer to lure those who wanted to shop at the Mall of America in Bloomington, Minn., offering a one-day Saturdays fare as low as $38 through Jan. 8.

Delta Air Lines came back with an unadvertised special for one-day, round trip travel on Christmas day for as little as $79. A similar New Year's Day promotion followed, but was advertised by BBDO Worldwide, Atlanta, in Atlanta, Dallas, Cincinnati and Salt Lake City.

"The only question left is which airline will be the first to hire Ed McMahon as spokesman for the `Airlines Clearing House $10 million Sweepstakes'?" one airline marketing executive said.M

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