The phone numbers of two airline charter operators with flights departing from Washington or New York were listed incorrectly last Sunday. The correct numbers are: Davis Agency, 521-5000; CIEE, 212-661-1414.
LOOKING FOR a good buy in transatlantic air fares?
Charters are making a comeback and again are offering travelers a lower-price option to the increasingly higher fares of the scheduled airlines.
Some typical prices from the Washington area: $549 to London, $599 to Paris, $549 to Frankfurt and $499 to Amsterdam.
Though in the past charters were clearly the most inexpensive way to fly, especially abroad, their popularity and availability declined significantly in recent years.
One reason for a sharp drop in the number of transatlantic charter flights was the entry of Laker Airways' low-fare Skytrain on the New York-London route in 1977. Laker's existence had forced the major transatlantic airlines to offer low fares to match Laker's, which in turn removed to a large extent the price advantage the charter airlines had possessed for the budget-conscious flyer. Scheduled flights also eliminated the element of unreliability that the charters of those days carried with them.
Another cause of the decline in charters was a change in government policy in the late 1970s that opened the way for charter airlines to begin operating their own scheduled services. Many of them, including World Airways, Capitol Air and Transamerica Airlines, did.
But with Laker's demise earlier this year and sharply escalating fares on the major airlines' flights, charters once again have emerged as a lower-cost way to travel. Even some of the major scheduled airlines have entered the charter field.
Take flights from the Washington area to London and Paris. The lowest "peak" summer fare available from Dulles International this year to London on the "majors" is $716 round trip -- and that's standby! If one wants confirmed space, the Super Apex round-trp fare -- booking 21 days in advance and staying between seven days and six months -- is $824. Add $25 each way to fly on a Friday, Saturday or Sunday.
The lowest summer fare from Baltimore/Washington International to London is $698 on the once-charter, now-scheduled World Airways. The fare has a seven-day advance purchase requirement.
The lowest summer fare on the scheduled airlines from here to Paris -- where the value of the dollar has reached an all-time high -- is also at an all-time high. The cheapest Paris fare this year is $803 roundtrip; it requires a stay of 14 to 60 days, ticket purchases when the reservation is made, no changes and a $50 penalty fee for canceling your plans.
Compare those fares with some charters. For $549, for instance, Travel Committee will fly you from BWI nonstop to London and back; the round-trip fare for their one-stop flights to and from Paris is $599. You can pay $575 round trip, and go to one city and come back from the other.
Travel Committee's flights, aboard 376-seat Pan American World Airways DC10 jets, leave Thursdays and come back Fridays. A passenger can stay one, two, three or as many weeks as he or she wants. They are, understandably, very popular this summer, with some flights already sold out.
Other "bargain" fares from the Washington area to Europe include a $549 round-trip charter to Frankfurt, and a $499 round trip from BWI to Amsterdam using Martinair Holland's new weekly "scheduled charter flights."
"I think this is the year of the charter," says John Krimsky Jr., vice president of Pan Am, in charge of charters and commuters. "They're taking off like gangbusters."
Krimsky said that Pan Am has dedicated five DC10s -- planes acquired with its merger with National Airlines -- to its charter services program. Seats on the charters generally are sold to the public by the charter operators -- like Travel Committee, which have booked the planes from Pan Am -- and their travel agents, rather than the airline whose planes are being used. While one tour operator might book a plane, another might also buy some seats on it and sell them as well to the public. The flight crew and personnel on Travel Committee flights are Pan Am's.
Pan Am's charters are exclusively on transatlantic routes this summer but "the fleet follows the sun," Krimsky says. "As soon as it gets cold in Europe, they'll go to the Caribbean, Mexico and Hawaii." The charters operate "off-line" -- in other words, not in direct competition with regularly scheduled Pan Am flights.
There are, of course, other summer charter offerings -- to all sorts of places, including the Caribbean, Mexico and Hawaii (which the Pan Am program currently is ignoring), the Far East and the Middle East. Many more charters are available from New York than Washington -- especially to places like Greece and Italy -- and it may often be worth it to go to New York to catch a cheaper charter than to book a scheduled flight to a destination from Washington. The less-expensive scheduled flights on the former charter airlines are also more plentiful from New York.
Clifton N. Cooke, the publisher of Jax Fax Travel Marketing Magazine, says he thinks there are about three times as many charter seats available this year as last. "It's gotten bigger than anyone anticipated this year," he said, noting that some charter operators started with modest anticipation and have wound up scheduling additional flights, over and above those originally contracted for. Cooke's monthly magazine, which lists about 90 percent of all available charters, goes to 17,000 travel agents, wholesalers and tour organizers.
The public wants to travel, especially to Europe where the dollar is at record highs in some countries, Cooke says, but they are looking for lower air fares than the ones being charged by the carriers connected with the International Air Transport Association, the trade group of scheduled airlines that seeks to set fares they all will charge on international routes.
"Business travelers will pay whatever the price is; they have to go and they don't care -- it's a tax-deductible expense -- but the discretionary traveler, paying out of his own pocket, is price sensitive," Cooke adds. He says that the dollar price for some charters is actually lower this year than the last couple of years, possibly because of all the aircraft available right now.
Cooke is convinced travelers will find charters much different today than they were several years ago when, he says, there might have been four program cancellations for every 10 organized. "The fallout of charters is minimal now," Cooke says. "To this date, none of the programs listed have been canceled."
Charter flights in the past sometimes were complicated and difficult to arrange, uncomfortable, subject to delays and even last-minute cancellations. Charter flights now, however, are infinitely more reliable, thanks to bonding and escrow account requirements the Civil Aeronautics Board adopted in 1979. The board now requires those offering charter flights to the public to put the travelers' money in an escrow account and to post a surety bond, noted John Golden, director of the CAB's office of congressional, community and consumer affairs.The size of the bond can be as much as $200,000 -- built-in consumer protection large enough generally to cover a possible default -- if the operator dosn't want to put all of the trevelers' money in the escrow account.
Other consumer-protection rules adopted by the CAB require the charter operator to notify the traveler generally of any major changes in a charter at least 10 days before departure. Major changes are considered destination, origin, price, date and hotel if a land package is included. The passenger has a right to a refund if he or she doesn't want to accept the change, according to Patricia T. Szrom, chief of the CAB's special authorities division.
Not long ago, the board proposed changing the regulations -- eliminating most of them -- but many in the industry urged the board to keep them intact, noting that they had already adapted to them and that the traveling public felt reassured by them, Szrom noted. Many argued that the rules kept out the "fly-by-night" operators and helped boost the reputation of charters. The board hasn't made any decisions yet.
Thanks to eased CAB rules, it is also as easy for a passenger to book a charter flight as a scheduled flight. No longer does a person have to be a member of an "affinity" or other group; basically, all a prospective traveler needs is the requisite amount of money.
Information on charters is available directly from charter operators or from travel agents. Some charter operators with departures from Washington or New York are:
Travel Committee, 301-363-4900 or 800-638-6188.
Value Vacations, 800-243-2848.
Davis Agency: 521-2000 or 800-336-4558.
ILT Tours: 966-1496l
Non-major scheduled airlines with low-cost flights -- mostly from New York -- include:
Capitol Air, 800-223-6365.
Metro International, 800-221-2500.
Transamerica Airlines, 800-227-2888.
World Airways, 298-7155, operates from BWI to London and Frankfurt.
Don't forget Icelandair, the long-time low-cost carrier, 800-223-5080 (800-223-5190 in Virginia).