Airlines Keep Treating Us Like Cattle

I vaguely recall a rule of thumb from my Marketing 101 class that said never refer to your best customers in terms associated with a herd of bovid -- in other words, don't call them "cattle."

One would think this would be a mantra for airlines; but strangely enough, in their zeal to squeeze out every last cent from their best customers -- business travelers -- they are referring to these folks as herd animals. Maybe they don't use the precise term "cattle," but when they talk about road warriors, believe me, they're envisioning the stockyards.

Case in point: Airline executives have been crowing to financial analysts lately about yielding more revenue by erecting fences around business travelers so they can't stampede and escape to purchase cheaper seats intended for leisure travelers who typically pay three to four times less. What's this all about?

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Well, first of all, simple economics has already been thinning the herd of air travelers this year. A toxic combination of energy prices, a weak dollar and a faltering economy has forced airlines to dramatically cut back seats in order to keep planes packed with higher paying passengers.

Airlines, in their quest for more revenue to offset fuel costs, have recently begun to rope in a few savvy business travelers who have been shopping early and scoring cheaper seats. Enter the fences.

I guess we really ought to call them barbed-wire fences. You see, the fence is one of the 20-plus rule restrictions of a roundtrip fare -- in this case, the minimum-stay rule -- that requires passengers to stay a certain number of days at their destination, or overnight on a particular day (typically a Saturday) to get the cheapest fare. This works to the airlines' advantage because they know the typical business traveler doesn't want to stay multiple nights or give up his or her weekends at home. So these business travelers -- or their companies -- pay more to skip the minimum stay requirement.

Weekends Away from Home

Back in the good old days (well, the days before the price of oil went crazy -- like this past year), airlines had pretty much done away with onerous minimum stay rules as they rushed to match low cost airlines and make fares simpler to understand (as if that were possible). Carriers could afford a few strays in those days of cheaper oil.

But as we know, those days are gone -- at least at the moment. To confirm some recent airline statements, I decided to do a minimum stay study on our airfare database at For more travel news and insights visit Rick's blog at: (one of the largest in the world); here's what I found:

A look at flights between 40 top domestic cities shows that about half of all cheaper roundtrip airfares filed by the six legacy airlines (American, Continental, Delta, Northwest, United and US Airways) had a minimum stay fence. Some of those airfares required a one night stay (day hop fence), but the bulk of them required a two or more night stay.

And I also found that the Saturday night stay requirement was also very common on popular international business routes; for example, a weekday business trip (Monday to Friday) on American Airlines from Dallas to London during September is averaging about $2,600 roundtrip -- but if you stay over on a Saturday night, the price drops to $1,100 roundtrip.

Business Travelers: What to Do?

You can try the low cost airlines (but you may not have any first class seats to upgrade to); typically, these airlines have a one-way fare structure that makes it impossible to add a stay requirement to a fare. However, these airlines can (and do) decide to release cheaper seats based on one-way or roundtrip travel queries, so when you get a price quote you think is too high, try doing the quote for each direction separately -- you may get a pleasant surprise.

Another thought: Instead of paying through the nose to get home for the weekend, see if the boss will spring for two cheaper tickets -- the ones that meet the minimum stay requirement -- so you and your spouse can have a nice weekend together on the company dime.

Many times the two cheaper tickets together will actually cost less than the single get-me-home-in-time-for-the-weekend ticket -- even if your spouse leaves a bit later for just the weekend. So the upside is, even if your airline fences you in -- you can still slip away and be a hero with your spouse and company -- my kind of win-win.

This work is the opinion of the columnist and in no way reflects the opinion of ABC News.

Rick Seaney is one of the country's leading experts on airfare, giving interviews and analysis to news organizations, including ABC News, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Reuters, The Associated Press and Bloomberg. His Web site offers consumers free, new-generation software, combined with expert insider tips to find the best airline ticket deal.