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Barrage of roundtrips under $400 as airlines take off gloves

Scott McMurren
Inside a Virgin America airplane. Thanks to Virgin's move into the Alaska market, airfares are dropping like a rock. Courtesy: Virgin America

A high stakes skirmish between United Airlines and USAirways means air fares to popular destinations in the Lower 48 are dropping. You can catch a deal if you move fast.

For example, last week we were crowing about a great fare from Anchorage to Philadelphia on Alaska Airlines for $454 roundtrip. That fare has gone up, slightly, to $498 roundtrip. As a rule, anything less than $500 roundtrip is a great deal on airfare from Alaska.

But United now offers a roundtrip fare as low as $331 roundtrip. Travel during the month of March is more expensive because of spring break. But rates are available for less than $400 roundtrip on many dates in April and May. I found the $331 fare between April 25 and May 2.

Philadelphia, by the way, is a fortress hub for USAirways. Accordingly, USAirways fired back with a fare of $352 roundtrip between Anchorage and Newark. Sure, it's a great fare, but I could only find a couple of dates available in March or April: April 17-24. Still, $352 roundtrip is a great fare.

Let's take a look at West Coast fares: United has a hub in San Francisco and USAir is offering a fare of $358 roundtrip. There are lots of dates available in April.

United had a great rate of $326 roundtrip between Anchorage and Phoenix. It's gone now, which indicates the two carriers may be patching things up. So if you see a fare that you like, grab it.

Between Anchorage and Denver, another United hub, USAirways is offering a great fare of $360 roundtrip via Phoenix. There are a few mid-week dates available in March -- and plenty of dates in April.

United, it appears, collects enemies in the airline business. JetBlue now is the largest airline in Boston and United is taking aim at the low-cost carrier, which premiers in the Alaska market with Boston-Anchorage service starting in May. United is now offering fares as low as $387 roundtrip between Anchorage and Boston (June 9-17).

United also is defending its Texas turf from jetBlue and another nimble airline new to the Alaska market this summer. Virgin America made headlines two weeks ago with nonstop service from its San Francisco headquarters to Alaska, starting June 6. The same day, Virgin unveiled Austin, Tex., service as well, linking up the Lone Star to the Last Frontier.

Response? United is offering a bargain basement fare from Austin to Anchorage with seats as low as $374, roundtrip, for travel between June 4-11.

Alaska Airlines can no doubt empathize with United’s diminished profit margins. Alaska has been doing most of the heavy lifting among carriers battling jetBlue's increased Alaska schedule. For example, Alaska is launching its nonstop Anchorage-Los Angeles flight on April 8, about five weeks before jetBlue starts its flights to nearby Long Beach. Fares are in the $330 roundtrip range. Fares between Anchorage and either Orange County or Ontario are hovering under $400 roundtrip all summer long.

Of course, jetBlue offers more than just Long Beach. Starting in late May, the New York City-based carrier will launch an Anchorage-Las Vegas route for just $376 roundtrip, starting in late May. How about Anchorage-Sacramento? JetBlue will fly Alaskans there for as little as $348 roundtrip, between May 22- 28.

Then there's the Battle for Seattle: Both Alaska and jetBlue are charging less than $300 roundtrip for many flights this summer.

As usual, these fares change like the wind. But as the launch date for summer service gets closer, Anchorage travelers can expect more great deals -- even though they may be available just for a short time. That's because these bargain rates are not meant for travelers. Rather, it's part of the complex signaling language that airlines use between themselves to carve up the market.

So stay tuned. There are bound to me more bargains in the pipeline, even if they are disguised as angry smoke signals from one airline to another!