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Stay just a little bit longer

National | Airlines require Saturday night stayovers for discount fares, but family-friendly business travelers are starting to fight back

Issue: "Who'll be king of the Hill?," Oct. 7, 2000

Jim Haynes is building a boycott. So far he has 21,000 potential participants; he wants 130,000 more. As director of the Commercial Travelers Association, his No. 1 beef is the Saturday night stay required by most major airlines for discount tickets.

Airlines claim the Saturday stay helps them fill seats on non-peak travel days, making it possible to keep weekday seats open for last-minute business travelers. But disillusioned customers like Mr. Haynes-a retired sales manager-call the stayover a "penalty" that takes its toll on family life and company expense accounts.

"You are away from home all week anyway and then you have to stay an additional two nights to get the most economic rate," he said. "You go through things like missing kids' football games, graduations, and other family programs." Not to mention church.

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As head of one of the nation's largest independent business traveler groups, Mr. Haynes has mobilized his plan to boycott selectively airlines through the Internet. He admits it's been a slow takeoff. "We threatened to do a class-action lawsuit ... until we realized that the airlines really had so much more money than we do and so many more lawyers," he told WORLD. "It's a big club with less and less members and bigger and bigger waistlines."

That waistline will likely widen this year with the proposed merger of United Airlines and US Airways. Kevin Mitchell, who chairs the Business Travel Coalition, is hoping the merger will serve as a catalyst for "passenger rights" legislation. He called the Saturday night stay one of the airlines' most "egregious abuses," noting that "Many times there is $400 or $500 on the table and there is pressure on the employee, even though it's voluntary, to go ahead and stay over Saturday night away from the family."

But there are some economic advantages to Saturday-stay discounts, according to policy analyst James Gattuso of the Competitive Enterprise Institute. "It definitely leads to lower prices for family travelers," he said. "Because if you weren't able to distinguish fliers based on their ability or willingness to pay, everyone would be paying closer to the average [which is higher than current fares]."

In short, the Saturday stay has become most airlines' discount gimmick of choice because it's the easiest tool for tracking customers. So it seems the best way to eliminate weekend stayover requirements is to find another tracking tool acceptable to both airlines and corporate travelers. That can best be accomplished through competition and negotiation, rather than more regulation, says Mr. Gattuso.

This already may be occurring.

After talking with corporate travel managers and reviewing surveys showing that businesses travelers incurred extra expense because of Saturday stays, Northwest Airlines introduced Bizflex-a 40 percent discount for fares purchased 10 days in advance without the Saturday-stay restriction.

"We are essentially meeting them [business travelers] halfway," said Northwest spokesperson Kathy Peach. Bizflex costs roughly 15 percent more than Saturday-stay flights but is still significantly lower than premium fares.

Bizflex has had a bumpy ride, though. After financial analysts predicted stock market skepticism toward the new fare, other airline hubs "essentially priced so that we had to take it out of the market," Ms. Peach told WORLD. As a result, Northwest now only offers Bizflex for direct flights and those going through its own hubs. Still, carriers like United Airlines and Delta Air Lines told WORLD they have matched Bizflex in areas where Northwest dominates.

Competition introduced by new airline business models also put a dent in Saturday stays. According to travel association surveys, many corporate travel managers are skirting stayovers by choosing low-fare, point-to-point carriers, such as Southwest Airlines. And some of the nation's largest airlines have responded to the pressure.

After Southwest Airlines lured business fliers with a simple fare system that eliminated Saturday stays, US Airways responded by launching Metrojet-a point-to-point subsidiary that allows business fliers to choose stayover nights other than Saturday. Delta also launched a point-to-point subsidiary (Delta Express) that does not require Saturday stays.

While competition and negotiation have brought some relief for beleaguered business travelers, Saturday night stays remain the norm.

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