Rumors of the death of first class are premature.
If evidence is needed, some people are paying more than is required to sit in first class. And fare-cutting little Virgin Atlantic is increasing the space it allows for its premium-fare seats.On the first of the year, Continental Airlines set up a new fare, or rather modified an old fare.
Its full regular coach fare, or Y fare, which is often cited in airline literature and seldom used by anyone except last-minute travelers, was renamed Continental Y-One Pass.
When the customer pays this one-way fare, regardless of how far in advance the booking is made, Continental announced, it will provide a seat in first class whenever there is one.
This means, Bruce Hicks, a spokesman for Continental, explained, that the Y-One customer gets the same shot at a first-class seat as the customer paying first-class fare, or the customer using a frequent travel coupon to upgrade a ticket.
If a customer bought the last seat in first class on the flight with a Y-One purchase, the next caller would not be able to get that seat with a full first-class payment. The promotion set off speculation that first class would be phased out.
Continental's plan was a wrinkle on several other airlines' promotions that provide a first-class seat at the last minute for a modest fee above the full regular coach fare.
"Naturally, we expected the purchases of first-class tickets to drop to zero," said Hicks. "That did not happen."
The number of purchases of first-class tickets at the first-class price has remained stable, he said, although it represents a smaller percentage of the whole in the light of increased sales.
The only gimmick in the Y-One is that the traveler must be a member of the Continental-Eastern frequent travel program, OnePass. However, travel agents and airline agents can sign the customer up at the moment of sale. There is no charge to join.
To give some indication of prices, a full first-class one-way Continental ticket between New York and Los Angeles is $833 right now.
The Y-One is $450, for the same seat. For comparison, a round-trip discount coach ticket on Continental with cancellation penalties costs $278, which means that the one-way passage is $139.
For the Miami-New York trip on Continental, the full first-class fare is $537, the Y-One is $249, or less than half the price, and one-way on the discounted round trip with restrictions would be $115, or less than half the price of the Y-One.
Hicks said that when sales at the first-class price did not disappear with the Y-One, Continental concluded that there was a stable core of people who traveled first class and that this group was not subject to offers of bargains.
He said that the airline believed that these people did not make their own reservations. But it seems possible to me that travel agents, who work on commission, do not tell their customers there is a cheaper way to get the same more comfortable seat with the same free drinks, better meals, more spacious storage and the same chance to get off the plane first.
The only thing that the Y-One ticket-holders miss is the bonus of 50 percent in points that first-class purchasers get on the frequent travel program.
At American Airlines, an upper price level in first class has been in effect for four years, and once again, the people paying this fare may not know they are paying more than they have to for their seat because of the time of day that they travel.
This is the "peak first class," or premium, fare, which applies on six nonstop flights a day, one in each direction between New York and Los Angeles, New York and San Francisco and New York and San Diego. The flights are the ones leaving New York around noon and returning from California in midafternoon.
A reader's call brought this to light. The reader was using a frequent travel coupon to upgrade his ticket to San Francisco to first class and the counter agent initially said the computer would not do this because the code was marked "P," for premium. After 40 minutes of computer work, the ticket for first class was produced in return for the coupon.
Mary O'Neill of American said that members of the frequent travel program, AAdvantage, were entitled to use their coupons to get the peak first-class ticket, despite the problems the reader encountered. For a regular purchaser, the price premium is $50.
For example, the full first-class fare to Los Angeles is $868 right now and the peak first-class is $918. Full coach on this route for American is $560, and a max-saver round-trip ticket with cancellation penalties is $318 or $358.
American said it began this premium rate in 1984, after Trans World Airlines put in one of its own. TWA said that it now added a premium to only one flight, No. 8 leaving Los Angeles at 4:05 p.m. for New York. The premium first-class fare is again $918, as against $868 first class on other flights on this route.
Virgin Atlantic has no first class, only a business class, which it calls upper class.
In mid-September it announced that it was increasing by 60 percent - from 46 to 74 - the number of seats in the higher-priced category on its New York-London flights. The price for this ticket is $1,333 one way, which provides a voucher for an additional economy ticket.
Virgin Atlantic's economy fares on the New York-London route range from $239 to $349 one way. The airline planned to double its Miami-London higher-fare seats to 28 in November.
State Tourist Aid
Last July, this column reported on the 29 replies received from 51 letters sent to state tourism bureaus and the District of Columbia seeking maps and other information. The purpose of the exercise was to learn whether a consumer could expect timely help in planning a trip. The conclusions from this research are now clear.
If you want particular material from a state tourism office, it is best to write, rather than call, to specify your needs.
If you can fit your request legibly on a postcard, do that to eliminate the need to have someone open an envelope, which may be one step too many for an overworked office.
If you write in the spring, allow six weeks for a reply, not the four that were allowed in this project, and keep track of the date you wrote.
If you want to make a phone inquiry about your request, do not call an 800 number but use a number with an area code in the state, although that is no guarantee you can find out what happened.
Some states include a postcard in their replies to allow you to ask for more information or brochures from specific tourist areas.
In 7 of the 19 states whose material arrived after the first month, tourism is the largest source of jobs: Alaska, Arizona, Colorado, Idaho, Nevada, New Mexico and Wyoming. Officials of some of the tardy states blamed the Postal Service, but the replies in the first 30 days came from places both near and distant.
Reader letters since then, as well as calls to 800 numbers, indicated that problems often occurred in states that used outside contractors to answer the 800 phone number or do the mailing. Telemarketing employees are often not given the address of the tourism agency for whom they were answering the phone.
If you did not save the listing, you may obtain a list of state tourism offices from the Travel Industry Association of America, 1133 21st Street NW, Washington, D.C. 20036.