Buy-and-fly deals take off in face of recession: David Nicholson-Lord looks at the 'free flights' on offer to shoppers (CORRECTED)

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The Independent Online

A NEW ERA in passenger air travel has begun. Instead of paying for a ticket directly, you buy a vacuum cleaner or a trolley full of supermarket goods. Several pages of small print later, the ticket comes free.

Or does it? Consumer lawyers and travel analysts were yesterday speculating whether Hoover has dug a deep pit for itself with its offer of free air travel to the United States for those spending pounds 100 or more on its products.

The Consumers' Association describes the Hoover offer as 'unprecedented'. Many travel agents do not believe it is possible. For buying, for example, a pounds 120 Hoover Turbo vacuum cleaner, you will be entitled to two return flights to New York or Florida, worth at least pounds 400.

Hoover is not the only firm offering cheap air travel. The purchase of a dozen cans of Foster's draught lager - pounds 8.89 on special offer - entitles you to enter a draw for a free ticket to Melbourne or Los Angeles. A bottle of Martell brandy could secure you a free flight with Air France. Sainsbury's has been offering high-spending customers up to 30 per cent discounts on British Airways. Even Selfridge's, the Oxford Street department store, is offering two European flights for the price of one to customers spending pounds 50 or more. The promotions are a response to recession in the High Street and the slump in the travel industry.

Hoover says its offer is possible because there has been an 'enormous glut of unsold seats', but not everybody agrees. 'Things are not that desperate,' a spokesman for one London bucket shop said yesterday. Average airline passenger loads, at about 75 per cent, were only 1 per cent to 2 per cent down.

Others believe it is a sign of business desperation. Hoover, for example, has lost more than pounds 10m this year. But why not merely cut prices? Because, the Consumers' Association says, there is a mass of people who have clearly decided to buy no more consumer durables until the recession is over.

'Hoover's market researchers must be telling them that offering something for nothing in this kind of attention-grabbing promotion is a much more efficient way of shifting products,' an association spokesman said.

The dozens of brand-new boxed Hoovers now 'for sale' in advertisement columns is a measure of the promotion's success. So is the seven-day working at its factory in Cambuslang on Strathclyde. But has Hoover got its sums right?

The firm will not reveal the details of its costings, but a previous offer on European flights drew 100,000 applicants. Observers are asking if it has underestimated the response to, and the costs of, the current offer. Rebecca Evans, a barrister with the Consumers' Association, believes that it could finish up being forced to offer people their money back, or even buying customers' flights on the open market outside the terms of the offer.


In yesterday's article on free flight offers, it was incorrectly stated that the purchase of 12 cans of Foster's Lager entitles the buyer to enter a draw for a free airline ticket. The entitlement is to a free flight to one of 31 worldwide destinations when one Apex return flight is purchased.