DALLAS -- Despite more than $1.4 billion in second-quarter losses, much of it blamed on lower fares, the major U.S. airlines cut ticket prices this week in a move that could signal fear of a much longer slump in air travel.
US Airways touched off the fare reductions Wednesday night. By Friday, American, United and Northwest had matched US Airways' action, and even expanded upon it in certain markets. Some of the cuts lowered prices by 40 percent or more.
The sales, most of which run through September, come at a curious time for the airlines. This week, they reported results for the three months ended June 30, and only one -- Southwest Airlines, the nation's sixth-largest airline -- earned a profit in the second quarter.
Across the industry this week, executives complained that they can't make enough money because fares are too low. American's chief executive, Donald J. Carty, said average fares were at a 15-year low.
The airlines' response? Cut fares some more.
"What a weird situation. It's getting bizarre," said Bob Jones, who tracks air fares for the discount Web site onetravel.com.
Todd Burke, a spokesman for American, the nation's largest carrier, said the airline was changing prices "as we think it's necessary. We matched US Airways ... and we expanded that sale to many other markets."
It isn't as if the airlines haven't tried to raise fares. They have -- four times this year -- but all the increases failed to stick. In each case, at least one major carrier balked, figuring that higher fares would drive customers away.
Airline executives fear that the usually robust summer travel season will fall short of expectations.
On Thursday, Southwest's chief financial officer, Gary Kelly, said bookings for July and August continued to look disappointing and offered "no evidence that things are improving anytime soon." He said the airline industry might not return to normal before next spring.
"The airlines are real worried about the fall," said Tom Parsons, chief executive of online travel-ticket seller Bestfares.com. "If Southwest said bookings were slow, you would expect that the big guys have just as many headaches."
Southwest was already offering $198 round-trip fares for coast-to-coast travel. On Thursday, US Airways matched that price on several of its own coast-to-coast routes and threw in other cuts, such as $98 round-trip fares between Albany, N.Y., and Orlando, Fla., and between Buffalo and Fort Lauderdale, Fla.
American cut prices on many routes, including flights to Hawaii, which had not been discounted since April, Parsons said.
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