SO WHATEVER happened to the charter revolution? Don't ask. They're still clearing bodies off the battlefield.
If you want to skip straight to the bottom line, you could say that the supplemental airlines and tour operators who fought the fight for lower fares won every battle but lost the war. Lower air fares are here, but it's the scheduled airlines that have most of the hot ones.
That wasn't how it was supposed to work. After the introduction of ABCs (advance purchase cheap air fares with relatively few other restrictions) and OTCs (single-destination air tours), "Wave of the Future!" headlines broke out all across the country. And charters did take off, in more ways than one. In 1977 they carried about 4.5 million passengers in each direction.
This year a handful of the largest organizers went out of business; Overseas National Airlines, one of the prime pushers of cheap seats, also folded its wings for good; Pan American and United, the two scheduled airlines that moved into the forefront as charter-seat suppliers, have backed way off; at least four tour operators have canceled all their charter programs and others have commenced winding down. In addition, two of the leading supplemental airlines, World and Capital, have just received authority to operate scheduled cheapfare flights to several points in Europe and Asia, and will be dividing their attentions.
Is there, in fact, anything left to so much as glance at? Oddly enough, yes. And anyone who fancies flying between New York and Miami this winter for $59 each way might well want to go beyond glancing. That's one of the charter fares being marketed, and it has all the earmarks of a winner.
Little spenders headed for anywhere in the Caribbean, or to a sprinkling of major cities in Latin America or Asia, may be especially glad they looked. With few exceptions, the price war hasn't greatly touched these areas, and charters are likely to be out in front, sometimes even when you have to go to another city to get one.
According to Cliff Cooke, publisher of Jax Fax, the leading charter guide used for reference at travel agencies, this winter's charter listings are about even with last year's.
For Brazil, there are no less than three back-to-back weekly programs, and at least one weekly program to Paris or Zurich. You can go to Frankfurt from 11 U.S. cities, although not every week, and can get to London from both the East and West Coasts. All in all, availability is holding up well," he notes.
There are even new combinations being offered, says Cooke: "There are charters to the Cayman Islands from Houston, to Israel from Chicago and Cleveland, as well as from New York, Washington and Philadelphia; to Greece from Miami to Mazatlan from New York, Chicago and Detroit."
Jax Fax claims to list about 90 percent of the charters offered, and for winter includes news of flights and tours to all of the following:
Europe - United Kingdom, Italy, Germany, Spain, Portugal, the Soviet Union, Switzerland, Austria, France and Greece.
Caribbean - Bahamas, Aruba, Antigua, Barbados, Cayman Islands, Cuba, Curacao, the Dominican Republic, Guadeloupe, Jamaica, Martinique, Puerto Rico, St. Kitts, St. Lucia, St. Maarten, Trinidad.
South America - Brazil, Peru.
Africa and the Middle East - Morocco, Egypt, Israel, the Canary Islands.
Far East - Hong Kong, Philippines, Tahiti, Bali.
And travel agents can sell almost any charter program - but the catch, of course, is in finding one going where you want to go, from where you can easily catch it, and operating for just the time period you want, going and coming. Unfortunately, that combination always has been - and still is - as elusive as the perfect marriage. And convinced that competitive air and tour prices are offered on scheduled flights operating far more frequently, lots of people apparently aren't troubling to look too hard for charters. Additionally (1) charters occasionally develop defects - even substantial delays and changes of days or departure points, and (2) many travel agents are not interested in selling them. For whatever combination of reasons, business is not exactly booming.
For someone who just wants to know where the buys are, there are indeed more significant things to note:
Guess what's alive and, some say, Swell? Affinity charters. You still supposedly have to be a member for six or more months in the sponsoring organization, but lots of people take the trouble (or find an unfussy club that backdates membership cards) because affinities are still virtually the only types of charters allowed into such countries as Australia, Japan, Denmark, Sweden and Norway. Advantage: Often, price. Disadvantage: Clubs are so hard to find, they almost have to find you. And do you really want to travel with all those people you knew 20 years ago in school?
Although some charters are advertised as "tours," you may still be able to buy the transportation part only. That's partly because new "public charter" rules are being phased in, and they allow charter operators to sell the same public charters both with and without tour packages. As the paperwork gets smoothed out, many of the OTCs currently on the market are expected to turn themselves into public charters. Moreover, after Jan. 1, virtually all charters except affinity charters will become public charters.
Under these less-restrictive public charter rules, the Civil Aeronautics Board will no longer require tickets to be sold 15 or 30 days in advance. Caution: Sellers may still have to sell them that way, because certain destination countries may require them to do so. Sellers may also impose their own cutoff dates. however, the new rules should lead to considerable leeway and make last-minute purchases a strong possibility.
You may find it advisable (and in the future even necessary) to shop around before buying a public charter. Markdowns, sales, discounts - call them what you like, they're all okay after Jan. 1, or for anything now filed as a public charter.
New consumer protection rules are attached to public charters and should make them more attractive to people who've heretofore been especially bothered by cancellation rules. Among other things, a passenger who drops out but finds someone to take over his ticket can't be penalized more than $25.