Airfare sales go to brink of peak summer season

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DALLAS - Airlines are offering cheaper fares into June, indicating they're worried about filling planes right up to the start of the peak travel season.

Tom Parsons, chief executive of discount travel site Bestfares.com, said airlines are offering seats as cheap as $78 round trip on many routes. He said prices of $98 and below are available to 30 cities from Baltimore, and $138 from more than 50 cities to Las Vegas, for example.

The deals also extend to some smaller cities, "like Roanoke, Va., which never gets invited to a fare sale," Parsons said. "It just shows how desperate (the airlines) are."

Most major U.S. airlines reported sharply lower traffic for January and February, with some of the declines hitting double digits. They've been cutting capacity to adjust to sagging demand.

To compound their problems, airlines are losing their best customers. The International Air Transport Association, an airline trade group, recently reported that passengers flying on premium tickets such as first- and business-class declined 16.7 percent in January, causing "significant damage" to airline profits.

Even when airlines offer sales, the number of seats available at the cheapest fare is often tightly limited - or even nonexistent on some flights.

Parsons said most of the current fare sales require a 14-day advance purchase and travel must be completed by June 17. The best prices are usually midweek, and there are blackout dates around Memorial Day.

(Copyright 2009 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)