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Airfare wars mean cheap tickets to Seattle, LA

It might be a good time for Rogue Valley travelers to book a flight, especially if you are headed to Los Angeles or Seattle.

The competition between Delta Air Lines and Alaska Airlines for Seattle market share has reduced fares between Medford and Seattle-Tacoma Airport. Likewise, United Airlines and American Airlines offer some bargain fares nonstop to Los Angeles International from Medford. The wild cards in the Southern California competition are low-cost, but indirect, fares from Alaska, and the infrequent, but cut-rate offerings by Allegiant Air.

“We’re seeing rock bottom fares by both American and United right now,” said Alan Bender, a professor at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University who tracks the commercial airline industry. “We don’t often see fares like this to Los Angeles.”

In this case, Alaska is advertising $99 one-way fares to Los Angeles, while American and United are countering with $178 round-trip fares. Of course discounter Allegiant, which makes two trips weekly to Southern California, is vying to retain its leisure market share with $50 one-way fares, before fees.

“There are always competitive pressures,” said Ashland travel writer Ed Perkins. “This is the first time we’ve had two major airlines — American and United — flying to Los Angeles, and it’s the first time we’ve had two outfits flying here to Seattle nonstop. As things have become more competitive, you would expect that to be reflected in the fares.”

Bender suggests that Alaska — the market leader during the last decade — and American, which arrived last June, have the most to lose.

“Alaska has lost ground on their home turf in the Pacific Northwest and they are trying to reassert themselves as the leader in the Pacific Northwest,” Bender said. “But they don’t have many cards to play.”

While Alaska provides the most flights to Seattle, as well as Portland, it still will be several weeks before the present Q-400s turboprop planes are augmented by regional jets.

Meanwhile Delta has built up its jet service between Medford and the Puget Sound.

“Where you can’t be the leader in terms of service, you can set the bar for low fares,” Bender said.

Alaska is offering $66 one-way fares to and from Seattle. In response, Delta is dropping round-trip fares from $171 to $131 on May 18. If you don’t mind flying north and then crossing back at 25,000 feet, Alaska is offering much lower fares to San Francisco than United and a fairly attractive option to Los Angeles.

“Their product isn’t worth as much,” Bender said. “Nonstop service is a special product, whether you’re going to the Bay Area or Los Angeles. That allows Alaska to take back some of the market for price-sensitive customers. But if you put any value on your time, it’s not an option.”

The perk, of course, is that Alaska’s frequent fliers can pick up more miles.

Fares are in the range that the impulse buyer might pick up a ticket, Perkins said.

“There is a point where really low fares will get people to take trips they hadn’t generally intended on taking,” said Perkins, who admittedly prefers bargain business class fares to Europe. “I’m sure there is a market for a traveler who sees they can get a really good deal to Los Angeles, and says, ‘Let’s go.’”

Until there are multiple nonstop options to the Bay Area, United will sway in the middle of the floor, while its competitors dance in the corner, Perkins suggested. United has fended off all-comers for decades, with Allegiant’s brief foray into Oakland during 2012 the most recent effort.

“The primary challenge is getting cheaper trips to San Francisco and the Bay Area,” Perkins said. “That’s been the situation for years and who knows when it will change? Basically, it’s United’s game. When we’re talking Medford to San Francisco fares, the other people are really non-starters. When you’re talking about flying by way of Portland, Seattle or Los Angeles, you’re really faster driving.”

Hoping a start-up swoops in with service between here and the Bay Area is a long shot.

“There have been a zillion start-ups try,” Perkins said. “Whenever that happens, the big guys play hardball when it comes to protecting what they think is an important piece of turf.”

Lest travelers wait to see who’ll blink first, hoping for even lower fares, Bender noted that’s not the way it usually works out.

“Typically airfare wars are short lived and only last until someone throws in the towel,” he said. “What often happens is there is a publicity advantage for airlines when this happens. People will see United is back in the market. When it ends, the rates will end up somewhat higher than the deals we’re seeing now.”

— Reach reporter Greg Stiles at 541-776-4463 or gstiles@rosebudmedia.com. Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/GregMTBusiness or www.facebook.com/greg.stiles.31.