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A Break in the Routine for Bargain Hunters Flying From Coast to Coast

Hopscotch flights on AccessAir can be booked at the last minute but require patience in the air.

First a spike, then a spiral. On June 2, major airlines announced hikes in fares, citing heavy demand for seats. On June 8, they backpedaled, advertising some of the cheapest fares in months. The reason? Too many empty seats. Confusing? Very.

So now we're back to the usual summer fare situation, right? Well, not exactly. For people flying between Los Angeles and New York, there is now a break from the norm, in which last-minute travelers are left in the lurch, summer or not.

A four-month-old Des Moines, Iowa-based airline -- with a mere two planes -- offers last-minute, bargain-basement fares between the coasts.

AccessAir

was started with the intention of giving people in the towns of Des Moines and Peoria and the Quad Cities in Iowa and Illinois easier access to both coasts. (Colorado Springs was added as a stop June 1.) Iowa-based businesses like

Principal Financial Group

and

Caterpillar

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, thrilled to have a hometown carrier, put up a good chunk of the $30 million needed to start Access.

But a little-known boon of AccessAir is actually for travelers outside the Midwest trying to get from New York to LA, or vice versa, on the cheap. Access has no advance ticketing requirements. And since the flights originate on both coasts, travelers can board in New York or Los Angeles and ride to the end of the line.

Be forewarned: It is a seven- to eight-hour hopscotch flight. But there are no plane changes. And the price tag may be worth it. Round-trip between La Guardia and LAX with a Saturday-night stay is $336. Without a Saturday stayover, the fare is $544, and that's an automatic bump to first class. Round up a toddler, college student or senior citizen to fly with you and you'll save even more. Travelers who are 25 years old and younger or 62 and older fly for $284 roundtrip New York to LA. And people flying with them will score the same fare -- Saturday night stayover or no.

For comparison, a round-trip flight from New York to LA on

Northwest Airlines

(NWAC)

with no-advance notice can run about $1,732.

Frontier Airlines

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, a Denver-based discount carrier, typically sells last-minute NYC-to-LA, round-trip tickets for about $650 to $1,270, depending on restrictions.

Those standard-and-annoying 7-, 14- or 21-day advance requirements for decent fares were scrapped by Roger Ferguson, Access founder and president, who scoffs at such rules as a game airlines play. "If they want to play with purple cue balls, I want to play with green cue balls," Ferguson says. "I do not want to play by the rules of my competition."

AccessAir flies with two overhauled Boeing 737-200s, formerly owned by

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Lufthansa

. The planes each seat 117, with 54 first-class seats and 63 coach seats. Ferguson says his pilots are mostly 50-something career aviators who retired early from other airlines.

One of Access' two planes leaves La Guardia at 6:40 a.m., makes 15-minute stops in Moline (one of the Quad Cities), Des Moines and Colorado Springs before landing at LAX at about noon. The plane then turns around, leaving LA at 12:30 p.m., retraces its stops and arrives back in New York at 11 p.m. Access' other aircraft, meanwhile, starts as a red-eye leaving Los Angeles at approximately midnight, stopping in Des Moines and Peoria, arriving in NYC at 10 a.m. The flight is then reversed and arrives back in LA at 3 p.m.

The airline is set to double its fleet this month, adding a third plane June 15 and a fourth on June 24. The new planes' routes will originate in Los Angeles with morning departures, make the two or three stops in the AccessAir markets before arriving in NYC. (Ferguson's goal is to add six planes a year and new destinations like Washington, Seattle, San Francisco, Boston and Orlando.)

Access was only in the air a month before it became the yappy chihuahua nipping at the big dogs. In March, Ferguson complained to Transportation Secretary Rodney E. Slater about what he called unfair, predatory pricing by Northwest and two other airlines. Ferguson claims Northwest was "the aggressor" but that all three offered rock-bottom fares in his markets in an attempt to drive him out of business. The three airlines have since changed their fares, Ferguson says, and he is dropping the matter unless it resurfaces.

Northwest flatly denies the predatory pricing charges and has a terse press release ready for anyone who asks. In it, Northwest says it did match Access' fares, but "at no time did (it) sell seats at prices below competitive levels." In a phone interview, Northwest spokesman Doug Killian reiterated: "We compete vigorously against our competition. We will defend our market share."

Ferguson, ironically, has been on the other side of this battle in the past. As a vice president for the now-defunct Eastern Airlines, his marketing and pricing responsibilities pitted him against such upstart rivals as

People Express

. Ferguson won't discuss what went on behind the curtain at Eastern, but he does say his former employer didn't undercut competition. As for the crumbling of People's, he adds, "We gave them enough rope to hang themselves."

Will anything hang AccessAir? Startup airlines can fall victim to rising fuel costs, economic downturns, mismanagement or rate cuts by major airlines. Helane Becker, an airline analyst with

Buckingham Research Group

in New York, cautions that not every town can support an airline and questions whether there is "a big rush to get in and out of Des Moines." As for the NYC-to-LA business potential, she says "that will appeal to some segments of the market, but after everybody takes their one trip, what are they

Access going to do?"

Yet Ferguson remains undeterred. He says he expects to show a profit by August -- when all four planes are flying. Exactly how the airline is doing financially is unclear: It would not disclose how many passengers it has flown so far, but Ferguson said that 6% take advantage of the coast-to-coast route. (The airline is seeking funding from Iowa and Illinois state governments.)

As for those juicy summer sales from the major airlines, among the best offerings is one from

US Airways

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. Round-trip fares between Los Angeles and six eastern cities -- Baltimore, Boston, New York, Newark, Philadelphia and Washington -- are $338. Travel dates are June 24 through Sept. 30. Tickets must be booked through the carrier's

Web site. But log on fast: The sale ends tomorrow. Of course, reservations must include a Saturday stay and be made 14 days prior to departure.

Susan C. Schena is an Ann Arbor, Mich.-based freelance writer. She previously worked as an editor at the Albuquerque Tribune and as a reporter for the New Mexico Business Watch and the San Diego Business Journal. She can be reached at

scschena@mediaone.net.