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Discounts by AirTran spark early fare war

The AirTran sale ended last night, but the low fares applied through mid-November, stirring rivals to offer discounts, too. The AirTran sale ended last night, but the low fares applied through mid-November, stirring rivals to offer discounts, too. (Michael Dwyer/Associated Press/File)
By David Koenig
Associated Press / March 12, 2010

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DALLAS — Discount carrier AirTran Airways fired the first shot of the summer fare wars this week, causing bigger rivals to match prices at a time when they would rather be raising them.

The sale that AirTran ran — which ended at midnight last night — included some seats on a few short trips as cheap as $44 each way, not including taxes and fees. What really made the sale stand out was its application period, covering travel from next Friday until Nov. 16.

Other carriers were forced to match on routes where they compete with AirTran or risk losing many passengers to their low-cost rival. Those sales, too, were set to expire at midnight.

“It’s very rare that we see a 200-day sale — that we get to buy that far out into the future,’’ said Tom Parsons, chief executive of travel website BestFares.com.

The length of the AirTran promotion prodded other airlines to sell some seats for the peak summer travel period at prices well below their optimal fares.

Airlines usually try to make enough money in the summer to last through the winter.

Analysts surveyed by Thomson Reuters expect five of the six largest US airlines to lose money in the first quarter of 2010, with only Southwest forecast to make a profit.