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Air fare declines may be near end

The great airline sale of 2009 may be ending.

Air fares, which have shown steady drops throughout this year, are beginning to show signs of stabilizing. For travelers, that means the strategy of waiting to book so prices can drop even more has probably run its course.

Fares in general are still much lower than they were last year. Travelocity reported that fall airfares fell 14 percent compared with fall 2008. But summer fares were down 18 percent.

Genevieve Shaw Brown, Travelocity's senior editor, checked prices for travel for the period from Labor Day to the weekend before Thanksgiving. When she checked on July 15, fares during that period were running 15.3 percent lower than a year ago. By Sept. 15, they were down only 14 percent.

"That suggests to me that airfares are stabilizing," she said.

Airlines are still running sales, as they always have, during good times and bad. But Tom Parsons, CEO of discount travel site Bestfares.com, said they seem more widespread this year.

"It's like every other day has an airfare sale from someone," he said.

Low-cost carriers have spread around the country to the point that they compete as much with each other as they do with big carriers like Delta and American.

Parsons said that it looks like JetBlue has been trying with limited success to charge $159 or more each way between the East Coast and the West -- a bread-and-butter route for JetBlue.

"They're trying like the dickens to get it there, but because of Virgin and some other competitors they've been forced to bring it back down again," Parsons said.

A check on Monday showed JetBlue fares between New York and San Francisco for early November running between $109 and $174 each way.

Southwest, meanwhile, isn't discounting as deeply as it used to. Parsons said airfares that once sold for $99 each way are now going for $149 each way. Still, Southwest is running its current sale through Feb. 11 (much further out than many airfare sales) although tickets must be purchased by Oct. 15.

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