Battle to fill US flights hots up

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FLYING to Naples today on the cheapest scheduled fare will cost pounds 295. New York is three times the distance, but you can travel there and back for 25 per cent less. To try to fill his 747s, Richard Branson is prepared to fly you 7,000 miles for only pounds 223.

Every 10 minutes or so today, an aircraft will take off from a UK airport bound for the United States. As far as airline schedules are concerned, Easter Day is just another day - 57 wide-bodied planes from London, plus a couple of Concordes and a sprinkling of services from Birmingham, Manchester and Glasgow. You do not need to be a Hoover executive to understand the pulling power of the US, but airlines find it hard to fill 12,000 seats every day.

Virgin Atlantic is currently the cheapest of the dozen carriers battling it out on the transatlantic routes, but all are trimming fares. The competition on non-stop flights is not restricted to British and US airlines: Air India, Kuwait Airways and Air New Zealand sell seats between London and the US. They offload cut-price tickets through bucket shops.

Flying the North Atlantic has been the ruin of some high-profile airlines. Freddie Laker, pioneer of the 'walk-on' Skytrain, went bust in a blaze of publicity; the American airline PeoplExpress prided itself on its management style, whereby pilots spent part of their time working as check-in staff, but after a series of losses it was swallowed up by Continental Airlines - itself now bankrupt, but still flying the Atlantic.

Jets flying this weekend may be fully laden, but as the Easter peak recedes, bargains are there for the asking. A ceasefire in the present fare war is due to come into effect on Thursday, but most people in the industry expect special offers to be extended. Between now and the end of June, transatlantic travellers can enjoy the muscle possessed by house-buyers.

Demand increases substantially in July and August; airlines rely on making substantial profits across the North Atlantic in summer to subsidise their price-cutting operations for the rest of the year. The most popular destinations and dates fill up fast: British Airways' flight to Orlando, for example, is already full in economy on the first Saturday of the summer school holidays.

Airlines, anxious to squeeze the maximum revenue from every seat, are tight-lipped on the prospect of peak-season discounting. 'We've not yet taken a decision on promotional fares beyond June,' said Virgin Atlantic's spokesman, James Murray.

Yet David Orkin, of discount specialist Quest Worldwide, says the bargains will be around for some time. 'If you can be flexible about when you fly, you can afford to wait a while - last year the summer price war arrived relatively late. But if your requirements are very specific in terms of dates and destinations, book now.'

Airport taxes can vary on the same route. On the Heathrow-New York route, British Airways charges pounds 11.60, Virgin pounds 24.

Another consideration is frequent-flyer miles. Some airlines, including BA, make discount fares ineligible for awards.

There is also the question of onward flights. American carriers have the advantage of extensive domestic networks, and sell tickets on these at low prices: pounds 185 for three flights anywhere in the continental US is the standard deal, but only if you fly the Atlantic on the same airline.

The very best domestic bargains, however, are the 30-day standby airpasses on Delta and Northwest. A month of unlimited travel costs only pounds 325, and you can use any transatlantic carrier.

British Airways has even started to discount flights on Concorde. If you travel before the end of June, you can save pounds 810 on a supersonic return from Heathrow to New York.