NEW YORK -- Americans are increasingly ready to embark on European
vacations, but higher air fares and fewer available seats are
stunting what could be a quicker recovery in transatlantic bookings
this summer and fall, operators and agents say.
"We only took in 75% of the business we anticipated -- not
because demand wasn't there, but because the seats weren't," said
Bert Accomando, president of Sceptre Ireland, a tour operator in
Rockville Centre, N.Y.
"We're now selling more land-only than ever before," he added. "And
talking to other operators, that seems to be the complaint all
across [the Europe market] this summer."
Europe Express, based in Bothell, Wash., had to turn away 15% to
20% of prospective customers this season because of a lack of
seats, said chief operating officer Paul Barry.
At the retail level, Rick Rosenfeld, president of Rosenfeld
Group in Deerfield, Ill., found that "the air is available, but not
necessarily at the prices we want to offer to our clients. Price is
Similarly, agent Fred Burman at Fare Deals in Owings Mills, Md.,
said his sales of consolidated air to Europe are down.
"Many clients have decided not to go because they can't get air
they wanted," Burman said.
The European Travel Commission in New York estimates travel by
Americans to the Continent will be down 10% to 15% through
September, largely due to a 15% dip in transatlantic capacity.
ETC chairman Einar Gustavsson of the Icelandic Tourist Board
said that if there were more flights and more seats, more people
would be flying.
The ETC said June capacity was down 22% at United, 14% at Air
France, 12% at Lufthansa and 8% at British Airways and load factors
are rising as a result.
Alitalia alone now offers 40% fewer seats from the U.S. Although
the planes are 90% full, overall lift to Italy is down 25%.
Yet some airlines dispute trade claims that it's hard to get
clients over the pond.
Aer Lingus executive vice president Jack Foley said 25% of
August seats are still available, though they may not be for the
most popular dates.
"We're still trying to sell, and I'd be delighted if operators
would buy them," he said, noting that summer flights normally are
booked by February, but this year only 20% had been reserved by
Agents and operators admit consumers' tendency to book late also
may be to blame but dismiss airline claims that availability isn't
"I ask clients right away if they can leave on a Tuesday or
Wednesday, and you still can't find seats," Burman said.
At Italy operator Amelia International in Hicksville, N.Y.,
owner Dawn Bosco said, "I've had trouble booking groups for
September and October."
Looking ahead, airlines may restore more capacity in the fall
depending on how the summer turns out, and that would be welcome
news to agents reporting growing interest in, if not down payments
on, autumn travel.
"Fall bookings are still down compared to this time last year,
but there's a lot of interest, such as brochure requests," Bosco
And pricing relief may be on the way, as well; Internet research
firm Jupiter Communications in New York predicts fare cuts in the
fall. "That will be good for consumers, if bad for air carriers,"
said analyst Jared Blank.
Despite more abundant and cheaper seats, another cloud on the
transatlantic horizon -- a weakening dollar and an increasingly
strong euro currency -- could darken the bookings picture yet
The euro, worth 83 cents per dollar last year at this time, on
July 15 achieved parity with the greenback.
While that makes price conversions easier, it robs U.S.
vacationers of the sense they're getting a bargain.
"If the euro gets higher than the dollar, people will think
Europe's getting expensive, though Americans can still get a good
deal there," said Conrad van Tiggelen, director of the Netherlands
Board of Tourism office in New York.