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Clash of the Airline Titans: Hot airfares from Anchorage

Scott McMurren

I love it when airlines are mad at one another. It's one of the elements that makes Anchorage the most affordable fly-in destination in Alaska. Here's why: Anchorage is the only airport in the state with more than one interstate jet airline flying year-round.

The affordability comes into play because of the way airlines communicate with each other. Pesky antitrust legislation and restraint-of-trade statutes preclude airlines from openly discussing pricing strategies with one another.

Instead, airlines voice their displeasure with one another by attacking competitors at their hubs.

Here in Anchorage, we have several airlines that get caught up in these battles: Delta, Continental and USAirways. Occasionally Alaska Airlines is caught up in the fray -- and that makes for some exceptional fares from time to time.

Sunday morning, instead of shoveling snow, I'm watching Delta and United battle it out. Both, of course, are giant airlines. Both love to throw their considerable weight around. Delta is still digesting its acquisition of Northwest -- they have hubs in Salt Lake City, Minneapolis, Memphis, Detroit and Atlanta. United, the other 700-pound gorilla on the Airline Planet, is absorbing Continental. The carrier has hubs in Newark, Houston, Cleveland, San Francisco, Washington, DC and Chicago.

This Clash of the Titans is yielding some good deals for Alaska travelers. Be prepared to pounce on the deals when you find them. After all -- these low fares are not designed for public consumption. Rather, they are the result of old-fashioned spite and malice. Once one airline has inflicted enough pain, the other carrier will adjust its prices -- and fares will go back up. And up.

First, the news from Delta:

Between Anchorage and Houston (a giant Continental/United hub), Delta is offering a rate of $455 roundtrip, all in. There are plenty of seats in the winter and spring, with limited seats during the summer. Alaska Airlines charges $636 for the same itinerary. Remember, you can accrue Alaska miles on your Delta flights.

Anchorage-Cleveland typically is an expensive ticket. It's a big Continental hub. Delta is offering tickets for $459 roundtrip all in during the winter and spring. USAirways charges $723 for the same itinerary. Continental, United and USairways all are members of the "Star Alliance" with reciprocal mileage programs.

Headed to Washington, DC? Delta is charging $455 roundtrip, all in for tickets all winter -- the tickets go up a few bucks in the summer. Alaska wants $655 for the same itinerary. Remember -- Washington's Dulles Airport is a huge United hub.

And now, the latest from Continental/United:

Anchorage-Salt Lake City. Oooh, I love Delta's nonstop. But at $632 roundtrip -- it's just silly. Fly United for $423 roundtrip. That's more like it. Sure, you'll have to change planes in Seattle and either Denver or San Francisco -- but the $200 will buy you more than a little comfort!

Atlanta isn't really Delta's back yard. It's the living room. So United is causing a huge ruckus with a sale fare of $421 roundtrip between Anchorage and Atlanta. And yes, that includes all the taxes and fees. You'll have to hunt for these in the summer, but the rates are readily available in the winter.

Anchorage-Minneapolis is a popular route -- and it's not often discounted in the winter. That's because it's one of Delta's "fortress hubs". But United doesn't care. They're mad -- and they want Delta to notice. Buy a ticket on United Airlines to the Twin Cities for just $421 roundtrip all in. Compare that with Delta's rate of $636 roundtrip all in.

Cincinnati is another Delta Fortress Hub. But United is offering tickets from Anchorage for $423 roundtrip all in. That's the same price as tickets on United to Detroit -- just $423. Delta's price to Detroit? A whopping $657. To Cincinnati? $656. In coach…no, I am not kidding.

Finally, remember that USAir has the best rates into the L.A. area: just $336 roundtrip to Long Beach and $404 roundtrip to LAX.

Again, these are hot prices. And I expect they'll disappear quickly, although USAir's prices to L.A. are holding steady.  But, as a rule, fares change like the wind. If you see one you like, pounce on it and save a bundle.

Oh, I booked each and every city pair to confirm that these are "real" fares. They're not available on every flight, but they're not hard to find, particularly in January and February.  I use a combination of the airlines' own websites, as well as other third-party sites such as hipmunk.com and farecompare.com. Also, I regularly check the raw fare data as published in travel agency computers, called "GDS" or global distribution systems.

Scott McMurren is an Anchorage-based travel marketing consultant who has lived in Alaska for three decades, spending much of that time traveling the far-flung corners of the state. Visit his website at www.alaskatravelgram.com. And follow him on Twitter at Twitter.com/alaskatravelgrm for breaking updates.