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Airline promises faster low-fare alerts

NEW YORK --Deeming e-mail alerts too slow for the most aggressive bargain hunters, Southwest Airlines now has an even quicker way to notify customers about its cheapest fares. Beginning today, Southwest will offer exclusive deals through free downloadable software called Ding, which can be found at the company's website.

Ding automatically informs customers -- with the sound of a bell and a tiny desktop icon -- when new deals are available.

Airline analyst Ray Neidl with Calyon Securities in New York credited Ding as ''cutting edge" marketing within the industry, though he said it is somewhat surprising coming from Southwest, which is known for a fare structure that is easy to understand.

''It adds a little bit more complication to their fare structure," Neidl said. He speculated that it could reflect an intensified effort by Southwest to respond to the proliferation of low fares from rival carriers.

Ding fares will be slightly cheaper than those offered through Southwest's weekly Click 'n Save offers, which arrive via e-mail and are already 38 to 67 percent less expensive than unrestricted fares, said Kevin Krone, a vice president at Southwest.

While most other airlines and travel websites advertise deals through various e-mail services, Southwest believes the direct link to customers that Ding offers will give it an edge in the competition for penny-pinching fliers.

''We don't play hide and seek with our lowest fares. We actually want you to get our lowest fares," said Krone.

That said, the Ding fares often must be booked within a few hours or, at most, within a day. The fares are generally for flights that are three weeks away or sooner. For now, Ding subscribers will receive information about Southwest's best fares around the country, though the information may later be targeted to customers' travel preferences.

Ding's success could hinge on how comfortable consumers are with giving Southwest instant access to their computers. ''We've been very, very careful to make this as user friendly and considerate as we possibly can," Krone said. ''It's not doing anything malicious, or any kind of spying."

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