High fares, low airlift stall travel to Europe

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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 a constraint."

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 that time.

Agents and operators admit consumers' tendency to book late also may be to blame but dismiss airline claims that availability isn't a problem.

"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 said.

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 again.

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.

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