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The Straight Dope 

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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. --Listener, Mike McConnell show, WLW radio, Cincinnati, Ohio

Airline moguls are devious, tovarich, but they're 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, 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 recently pleased 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, but we like living close to the edge.) Value: $2500. Cost of the previous two years' worth of air travel needed to qualify for the freebies: $2400. (Honest--there was a fare war on flights to Detroit.) When Marx talked about capitalism collapsing of its own contradictions, maybe this is what he had in mind.

Speaking of airfare anomalies, ever wonder why flying from Saint Louis to Chicago one way costs $59, while flying from Saint Louis to Indianapolis (a shorter distance) costs $200? It's because TWA, the dominant carrier out of Saint Louis, has competition on the route to Chicago, but none on the route to Indianapolis. Similar situations occur in many markets nationwide, thanks to the Reagan administration's permissive attitude toward airline mergers. For more on the whole sad story, read the June 1988 issue of Consumer Reports.

You may remember the infamous Susan B. Anthony dollar, a 13-sided coin that bombed miserably when it was offered as a substitute for the good old greenback. There are many mysteries surrounding this coin, not least of which is why they decided to introduce it in the first place. But my question is simpler: is there a name for a 13-sided object--that is, besides "pariah"? --Listener, Jim Althoff show, KING radio, Seattle

Having spent a good five minutes scouring my OED, I fail to find one. But how's this for a free-lance effort: triskaidekagon. (Compare triskaidekaphobia, fear of the number 13.) You discover any other voids in your vocabulary, just let me know.

Cecil's latest book, More of the Straight Dope (Ballantine, $8.95), is now available at bookstores.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Slug Signorino.

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