AIRLINES COME OUT OF THEIR SHELLS TO PLAY UP LOW FARES

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Airlines are playing games with travelers in a bid to gain awareness for low fares.

It's a contest being staged at airports, malls and downtown. The idea is to have a little fun, generate publicity and gain good will at a time when consumers are inspired to travel by carriers offering low fares.

Take Continental Airlines. The Houston-based carrier on March 9 will invite travelers to "Fling for Flights" to trumpet the arrival of its no-frills Peanuts Fares at four Peanuts markets.

A "peanut booth" will be set up at airports in Greenville/Spartanburg, S.C.; Chicago; Dayton, Ohio; and Orlando, Fla. A map of Continental's route system, with holes to identify Peanuts markets, will be the target. Travelers will get three chances to throw a bag of peanuts through a hole.

If someone succeeds two out of three times, he will win a free ticket to that city. The map will also show actual Peanuts Fares to each destination.

"By branding peanuts, we can have a lot of fun," said Joe Lopano, Continental senior director-market development. "You can't get too serious about peanuts. We wanted to create something that would involve the participant, and we felt the map with destination and prices would do that."

Continental is taking the booth to other locations like the Houston Livestock Show & Rodeo this week. The airline has also set up the game booth at malls.

So far, Continental has given away "hundreds of tickets," Mr. Lopano said.

Adding to the peanut mystique is the carrier's Captain Peanut, the symbol of its low fares. Captain Peanut appears at airports to call attention to Continental's "Fly for peanuts" positioning.

Buttons and T-shirts carry the message: "Don't be a goober. Fly for peanuts only on Continental."

The industry's king of low fares isn't taking Continental's peanuts games with a grain of salt.

Southwest Airlines 10 days ago had employees dressed in plane costumes and handing out bags of peanuts in downtown Houston, Continental's headquarters. Southwest often has games at airport gates-particularly when there are flight delays. Winners usually get a free trip.

"Airlines are being forced to adopt retail promotional tactics because a war for consumer awareness of low fares is being waged," maintained James O'Donnell, chairman of Seabrook Marketing, a Houston-based travel marketing consultancy. "The impact is greater on news media than it is on travelers. It works because it generates publicity."

kate Fitzgerald coordinates Promotion Marketing News.

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