Are Business Air Fares Unfair?

"We're paying significantly more so the leisure traveler can afford to travel," said travel manager Kaden.

So why don't the airlines simply lower their business fares? "Were we to lower our business fares," said Delta's Mullin, "we would create an economic problem" and the already deep losses would become deeper.

The airlines don't believe they can stimulate much business travel in a recovering economy with lower fares. And besides, they argue, it's not that simple.

Mullin points out that the airline keeps a 10 percent slice of its seats reserved for the last-minute business traveler, seats sold at high fares. "Were we to take some other approach to it, we'd be selling out all our seats in advance and there wouldn't be any seats for that last-minute traveler," he said.

Rebound Appears Long Way Off

What's needed, say corporations and business travel advocates, is a restructuring of the airline's complicated fare system.

"Business travelers have made one decision," said Maryann McInerney of the National Association of Business Travelers, "when they are not getting the prices they want, they stay home."

The critical question for the airlines is how long that impasse will last.

After the Gulf War, air travel recovered in about six months. The latest forecast from the Federal Aviation Administration is that air travel won't return to pre-Sept. 11 levels until 2004.

"I think it will be back," said Mullin, "in the period of 2003. I doubt very much it will go to 2004. If it lasts that long, it could be the source of a very significant industry crisis."

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