By Ed Perkins, Tribune Media Services, July 28, 2002
After the recent first flurry of senior cuts, the Big 6 network airlines--American, Continental, Delta, Northwest, United and US Airways--didn't just drop the other shoe, they dropped a closetful. They all dumped the longstanding 10 percent discount for senior travelers age 62 or over. All but Delta also dumped senior coupons. And Continental dumped its senior discount club.
The Big 6 lines replaced the former 10 percent discount with a set of published fares about 10 percent below those lines' regular 14-day advance purchase non-refundable fares, although the exact percentages vary by route. There's no guarantee, however, that the new senior fares will be at all below many of the special "sale" fares you see so often, nor will they necessarily be below the many Internet-only fares that are available to travelers of any age.
Compared with any-age fares, the main advantage to the new senior fares is a maximum stay up to 180 days, rather than the usual 30 days. The idea is that "snowbird" seniors can use the new fares for extended winter trips to Florida, Arizona and other warm climes, while seniors who live in the Sun Belt can use them to cool off in the North for a full summer.
The Big 6 also hiked the minimum qualifying age for those new tickets from 62 to 65. That means the biggest losers are travelers age 62-64, who wind up with virtually nothing.
For many of us, however, coupons are the biggest loss. I've used coupons extensively over the last 10 years, and they will be sorely missed. Beyond good prices for long trips, coupons provided travel without a Saturday-night stay and (on most lines) standby travel for last-minute trips.
However, a few bright spots remain:
As of July 22, Delta said it would continue to sell coupons, although it was reviewing the program and might change sometime later. Briefly, coupons let seniors age 62 or over fly Delta anywhere in the United States, round trip, for no more than $343. America West also said it would keep selling senior coupons, at $596 for four (two round-trips).
Several smaller lines apparently decided to woo senior travelers, rather than give them the short end of the stick. Frontier is not only keeping the 10 percent discount at age 62 but also extending it to reduced Internet-only fares. As of July 22, Alaska, America West, Midwest Express and National had also retained their previous senior discounts, although spokespersons for all said their lines were reviewing the situation and might change at some time in the future.
Southwest hasn't abandoned its usual senior fares--not necessarily the line's lowest, but almost totally unrestricted and fully refundable.
Delta's decision to keep selling senior coupons--at least for now--is particularly interesting. The Big 6 usually all play the "me, too" game. You have to figure that Delta might yet decide to dump the coupons. On the other hand, if Delta keeps selling them, you have to figure that the other five giant lines may well decide to revisit the issue.
Overall, the situation is still somewhat fluid.