AIRLINES GIVE FLIERS FLEET OF NEW CHOICES

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Airlines are finally getting their act together and responding to consumers like never before.

In the coming months, passengers will face more and more choices, from increased Continental Lite service and Shuttle by United to Business Select from USAir. On every level, airlines are trying to get the formula right-whether it's flying Monday evenings on Southwest Airlines for $25 or drinking Starbucks coffee on Delta Shuttle flights to Boston, New York and Washington.

The most dramatic marketing response comes from No. 1 United Airlines, which inaugurates its West Coast shuttle Oct. 1.

"It's as if Rolls-Royce launched an economy car," said one industry consultant.

A $7 million to $10 million multimedia campaign from Leo Burnett USA, Chicago, will advise California travelers: "Shuttle by United: More than you bargained for." In a TV spot breaking Sept. 13, United's new product is humorously contrasted with the space shuttle.

The space shuttle comparison is a thinly veiled reference to Southwest, which commands 52% of the California market.

United's shuttle advertising makes the most of the airline's plan to offer seat assignments at check-in-unlike Southwest's take-any-seat-you-can-get approach.

Southwest isn't fazed-but the feisty no-frills, low-fare expert fired its own salvo last week. As part of its new sponsorship with ABC's "NFL Monday Night Football," Southwest is offering a $25 non-stop, one-way fare every Monday night starting today. The sponsorship involves the airline's first-ever network TV advertising. Southwest is positioned as "The low-fare airline" in back-to-back 15-second spots from Cramer-Krasselt. A separate 30-second spot for the fares, from GSD&M, Austin, Texas, stars Southwest Chairman Herb Kelleher.

In direct contrast, USAir this fall will offer a premium product to short-haul business travelers in East Coast markets. The airline wouldn't discuss specific marketing plans.

On Dec. 1, the airline will offer a Business Select product that features an aircraft cabin with converter seats and a movable divider, allowing reconfigurations between flights to meet demand and maximize revenue.

USAir will battle Continental Lite's discount Peanuts Fares, but only time will tell whether passengers will actually pay full coach fare for Business Select.

"Through 18 months of research, our business customers have told us that they would pay full coach fare for a premium product," said a USAir spokeswoman.

Still, analysts questioned whether consumers really will pay more for a little extra room on a 2-hour flight. Trans World Airlines didn't have much luck with the roomier Comfort Class and likely will give it up.

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