Upright and Locked AirTran Withdraws

From `Crazy' Dulles Competition

Resuscitated low-fare airline AirTran has ended nonstop service from Dulles International Airport to Boston (on March 15) and Chicago (effective Wednesday), leaving those routes without a low-fare carrier.

Is this a strategic retreat for the Atlanta-based airline, which is still in the process of recovering its business and its reputation following the ValuJet (precursor to AirTran) Everglades crash in 1996 and subsequent concerns about the integrity of its operation?

In a word, yes. AirTran doesn't want to get caught in the crosswinds of the air war brewing at Dulles between United (which has declared Dulles its East Coast hub) and locally based US Airways (which intends to defend its home turf and extend its local domination to Dulles). Both major carriers fly nonstop from Dulles to Chicago and Boston, and both are adding service along these and other high-volume destinations.

AirTran President Joe Leonard says the battle between the two majors at Dulles is "crazy, and we're not going to get in the middle of it." Low-fare carriers usually target areas underserved by majors, not those where there is heavy competition.

Some industry watchers feel that the flight and carrier choices available from Dulles, Reagan National and BWI will keep prices on the routes in check, even with AirTran's departure. US Airways' MetroJet, which flies to Chicago Midway nonstop from Dulles and BWI, is considered a low-fare airline by many (including its owners) -- but not, so far, by the Department of Transportation, which employs the designation when determining the competitiveness of an air traffic market.

DOT statistics show that, absent a low-cost carrier, major airlines tend not to compete with each other on ticket prices in short-haul markets (750 miles or less), and that maintaining low fares between two airports generally requires the presence of a low-cost airline. Consumer activists agree, and further believe that one of the remaining majors eventually will back out of either Boston or Chicago due to a lack of demand, creating an opening for higher prices to these major cities at a later date.

AirTran's Dulles scale-back further fuels questions about the airline's financial health. Randy Petersen, editor of InsideFlyer magazine, speculates that AirTran may be on the brink financially and is re-deploying Dulles planes into less competitive markets in hopes of staying afloat. "Not too many low-fare guys are doing well right now," he observes.

On the other hand, some Wall Street analysts have AirTran stock pegged as a buy. Among them is CIBC Oppenheimer's Julius Maldutis, among the most respected Wall Street airline stock gurus, who issued his opinion May 20. AirTran's recent regulatory filings show the company in better financial standing than it was six months ago.

AirTran's Leonard points to service the carrier recently began between Atlanta and Tampa, New Orleans and Fort Myers, Fla., and service between Atlanta and Newark, N.J., which is scheduled to start July 1 with four daily flights. And price-conscious Washington passengers can still fly AirTran to Atlanta and, from there, to other AirTran destinations.

In another indication of AirTran's shaky competitive stature in the Washington market, the airline wrote DOT June 1 complaining about lack of access to gate space at Reagan National Airport and noting that Delta, United and MetroJet have increased Dulles-Atlanta service, lessening AirTran's market share on that route.

-- John Briley

Travel Tip 100

Best of the Worst, or:

What Were We Thinking?

You love them. You loathe them. They make you crazy. And they generate more letters, calls and e-mails, many of them quite intemperate, than just about anything else we run. What is it about our Travel Tips feature that inspires such reactions? All we know is, we've published 99 clever travel tips sent in by readers who want to share what they've learned on the road (and to win a Travel section T-shirt in the bargain). And we've received thousands of others we have not published.

But every now and then, our readers' baser instincts -- not to mention ours -- have won out during our tip selection process. How else to explain the random appearance of egocentric, dangerous and/or downright foolish advice we've occasionally published in this space?

This week marks our 100th Travel Tip, a time for reflection. In the spirit of self-absorption and reader interaction, we offer yet another opportunity to weigh in on our Travel Tips. Below you'll find a list of 10 questionable tips. Seven of them were really sent in by readers and actually published on our pages. Three are bogus, suggested by nobody and, as far as we know, never published before. Your challenge: to determine which three are the fakes. One winner, selected randomly from among all correct entries, wins our Travel Tip Trinket Trifecta: a T-shirt, a mug and a paperweight, all emblazoned with the Travel section logo. For info on how to enter, see the fine print below.

And now, on to the tips -- and the pretenders:

1. Snag an aisle or window seat on your next flight, then discourage people from sitting next to you by placing a used Kleenex on the middle seat. (Optional: Let a strand of used dental floss trail out of your mouth.)

2. Bribe your child to enjoy hiking by surreptitiously hiding money along the trail for him or her to find.

3. Pack a foldable crutch that you can whip out at boarding time so you can pre-board with the elderly and infiirm.

4. Noisy soda machine too close to your motel room? Tape a fake "Out of Order" sign on it so you can enjoy a good night's sleep.

5. Drape your wet towels and bathing suits over the blades of your hotel room ceiling fan and let them "spin dry" overnight.

6. Hotel room not ready? Kick off your shoes and make yourself comfy on the lobby sofa while you wait. You'll get your room pronto.

7. For top security, tape your money, passport and other important papers to your inner thighs with duct tape.

8. Buy a portable flashing red light like detectives use and place it on the roof of your car so you can load and unload your bags at the airport more easily.

9. Use your car as a washing machine by placing your dirty laundry in a bucket of soapy water in your trunk.

10. Pack a large coffee can with carry-on items, seal it tightly and use it as a footstool on overseas flights.

Send your answers by midnight Saturday, June 19, via e-mail (travtips@washpost.com); postcard (Travel Tips, Washington Post Travel Section, 1150 15th St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20071); or fax (202-334-1069). Include your name, address and phone number. No purchase necessary. All answers become property of The Washington Post, which may edit, publish, distribute and republish the information in any form, including paper and electronic media.

Exit Lines

From June 25 to Aug. 31, the French-owned Sofitel hotel chain is offering discounts at its properties across Europe and the United States. Doubles at the Sofitel Lisbon, regularly $212, are going for $150 a night. Similar deals are possible in Nice, Vienna and Paris. Rooms at the Sofitel Los Angeles, usually $334, have been reduced to $170. Reservations: 1-800-SOFITEL (1-800-763-4835).

Bed wars: Countering British Airways' recent promise to install flat sleeper beds for long-haul business- class passengers, Virgin Atlantic Airways says its new sleeper seats will transform into full-length double beds. Trans-Atlantic round-trip tickets will cost about $10,000, which presumably does not cover bedtime story readings.

Ground School

Local events offering information, inspiration and motivation

for travelers between trips

TODAY, SUNDAY, JUNE 13. How to Be an Organized Traveler, workshop, advice and demos. 3 p.m., the Container Store, 1601 Rockville Pike (at Congressional Plaza), Rockville. Details: 301-770-4800.

TUESDAY, JUNE 15. International Jobs. Tips on employment opportunities worldwide by the authors of "The International Jobs Directory" and "Jobs for People Who Love to Travel." 7 p.m., Travel Books & Language Center, 4437 Wisconsin Ave. NW, Washington, 202-237-1322.

Send event info by e-mail to travel@washpost.com or by fax, 202-334-1069.