Why are air fares cheaper if you stay over Saturday night?

Dear Cecil:

I've been hearing commercials for discount round-trip airfares that have a peculiar requirement: you have to spend a Saturday night at your destination before returning home. In other words, if you leave Tuesday and come back the next day, you pay full fare, but if you leave Tuesday and come back eight days later, you save big dough. This makes no sense. Why do the airlines care where you spend your Saturday nights? Do they get kickbacks from the owners of foreign fleshpots? Rip the lid off this one, Cecil, I smell a rat.

Cecil replies:

Airline moguls are devious, tovarich, but not that devious. Deep discount air fares, the ones that usually involve a Saturday requirement, are aimed at pleasure travelers who otherwise couldn’t afford to fly. They’re explicitly not aimed at business travelers, who constitute about half of all passenger traffic. Business travelers pay full fare now without complaint, they’re not going to fly appreciably more if the fares are lower, and the airlines figure there’s no sense sabotaging the profit margin.

The problem, of course, is separating the business folk from the tourists. Obviously it would be uncool to inquire into the motives of prospective passengers when they bought tickets. (“Do you always wear wingtips on vacation, Mr. Smith?”) So the airlines came up with what’s called the “first Sunday return” requirement, meaning you have to stay over Saturday night. The idea is that business travelers seldom stay at their destination over the weekend, but pleasure travelers often do.

Sound like the poor business traveler is getting ripped off? Don’t lose any sleep over it. Businesspeople can take advantage of frequent-flier programs. These have been scaled back now, but at one time they were the most incredible giveaway since triple Green Stamps.

Cecil, whose wife often flies on business (she’s in charge of Straight Dope Inc.’s vast world holdings), was pleased some years ago to participate in an unbelievably luxe junket to the Virgin Islands, courtesy of an up-and-coming carrier with plenty of ambition and zero common sense. We got free air travel, a week’s free resort accommodations, and a free rental car. (OK, it was a Suzuki Samurai, noted for its penchant for flipping over at untoward moments, but we like living close to the edge.) Retail value: $2,500. Cost of the previous two years’ worth of air travel needed to qualify for the freebies: $2,400. (Honest — there was a fare war on flights to Detroit.)

The airline that offered this deal has since gone bankrupt. When Marx talked about capitalism collapsing of its own contradictions, maybe this is what he had in mind.

Send questions to Cecil via cecil@straightdope.com.

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