DALLAS (AP) — Southwest Airlines Co. and its AirTran Airways subsidiary launched a sale Tuesday that includes fall flights starting at $99 per round trip, and other major airlines quickly matched the move.
The sale appeared designed to fill seats on planes after the peak summer travel season ends and families return home for the start of the school year.
Southwest and AirTran said they were charging $49 each way on flights of 500 miles or less, $99 each way for 501 to 1,300 miles, and $139 each way for trips longer than 1,300 miles.
United Airlines, Delta Air Lines and American Airlines matched the Southwest prices, according to officials for those airlines. Others did not immediately comment.
Tom Parsons, the CEO of travel website Bestfares.com, said connecting flights were priced slightly higher. The sale prices weren't available for travel on Fridays and Sundays, only a limited and secret number of seats were to be offered at the lowest prices, and AirTran's international flights aren't part of the deal.
The sale ends Thursday night and covers travel from Aug. 13 through Nov. 14.
"It's not peak summer season, but if you don't have kids or you're in a part of the country where school doesn't start until Labor Day, this is a good sale," Parsons said.
Southwest carries more U.S. passengers than any other airline, and it holds great influence over prices on the routes it flies. For that reason, it was not surprising that other airlines began matching Southwest's move within hours. Parsons suggested that consumers check to see if they could find better connections or more convenient flight times for the same price on another airline.
Southwest and other airlines have raised their base fares more than a dozen times since the start of 2011 to cope with rising prices for jet fuel, their top expense. But spot prices for jet fuel have dropped by nearly one-fifth since April 1, according to government figures, giving Southwest more flexibility to cut prices.
Southwest's move "generated modest concern" among airline investors, said J.P. Morgan analyst Jamie Baker, presumably because they fear that cutting prices will hurt revenue. Baker said the sale prices were slightly higher than Southwest touted at this time last year, although that's partly because new federal rules require airlines to include certain taxes in advertised fares.
Some examples of the fare sale prices:
— $49 each way: Boston-Baltimore; Dallas-Houston; Chicago-Detroit; Sacramento-Burbank, Calif.
— $99 each way: Chicago-Atlanta; Denver-San Francisco; Indianapolis-Orlando, Fla.
— $139 each way: Philadelphia-Las Vegas; Los Angeles-Chicago; Phoenix-Newark, N.J.
Gulf Coast spot price for a gallon of jet fuel:
— April 2, $3.315
— June 5, $2.687
Southwest shares closed 1 cent higher at $8.99.