by Brendan M. Lynch | April 01, 2006


The desperate drive to slash costs and streamline operations at U.S. airlines during the past few years has affected group travel programs that have long benefitted meeting, trade show, convention and incentive planners. Are free tickets, guaranteed seating blocks and airfare discounts going the way of the biplane? Not quite, but cutbacks are afoot, and planners might find several of the changes unwelcome.
    “Because of financial troubles in the airline industry, some carriers have moved away from some group products,” says Mark Nickells, managing director for group and meeting travel with Dallas-based American Airlines. “And now, most people traveling as a group are looking for the lowest fare. You've seen that across the industry.”
    Indeed, changes to group offerings at some carriers have been dramatic - up to and including the entire elimination of meeting programs. Why? The so called “legacy” carriers (those that were around before industry deregulation in 1978) in general use a hub-and-spoke model of operations that has proved more expensive to run than the point-to-point model used by younger airlines. Worse for the legacies, their hungry low-cost competitors have largely suppressed airfares while an unyielding rise in jet fuel prices has nullified cost-cutting elsewhere by the industry's old guard. 
    “When you have the juxtaposition of historically low fares, which are at 1988 levels, and historically high fuel prices, every airline has a problem,” says John Heimlich, vice president and chief economist with the Washington, D.C.-based Air Transport Association. “You cannot fill half a plane, or even three-fourths of a plane, with 1988-level fares and expect to cover the cost of $72-per-barrel jet fuel.”
    Even low-cost carriers face the challenges of high fuel costs and sharp-elbowed competition. These harsh economic realities are not predicted to improve anytime soon: “Overall, the industry should post $1 billion to $2 billion in net losses in 2006,” says Heimlich. In light of these woes, following is an updated look at the products and services both legacy and low-cost airlines are offering to the meetings industry.

Alaska Airlines/Horizon Air
Group Travel Desk: (800) 445-4435
Horizon Air Group Travel Desk: (800) 547-3209

On Alaska Airlines, the country's ninth largest carrier (with hubs in Seattle; Anchorage, Alaska; Los Angeles; and Portland, Ore.), groups of 10 or more traveling together on the outbound leg of a trip may qualify for fare discounts, with the exception of some busy holiday periods.

American Airlines
Group & Meeting Travel Desk: (800) 221-2255

American airlines

American offers reduced fares for site inspections.


American offers one of the most comprehensive group travel packages in the industry, with a group travel desk and programs tailored to association meetings, company meetings and group incentive travel programs. 
    AA's Group & Meeting Travel programs for association, corporate and incentive events offer special savings and bonus discounts on published airfares for 10 or more passengers traveling to the same meeting or convention when AA is designated as the event's official airline. Attendees are granted a 5 percent discount on published fares, which applies to travel originating from various North American cities to a common destination in North America, the Caribbean, Europe, Latin America or the Pacific. 
    American also guarantees economical fares from various geographic zones of departure to a common destination for groups of 10 or more traveling to association or corporate events. These discounts run as deep as 40 to 70 percent off full, unrestricted coach fares. However, zone fares do not require a Saturday-night stay, so they're best suited to midweek meetings and events. Zone travel fares are valid for flights beginning in the United States and Canada and destined for North America, the Caribbean, Europe, Latin America and the Pacific. 
    Negotiated rates for blocks of seats are available, whereby a planner may negotiate a rate with the group travel desk over the phone. “You will receive a contract within hours,” says Nickells. “A signature is not required for discounts and zone fares. A block space agreement requires a deposit, and you must sign and return the agreement.”
    Event, meeting and convention planners also can secure reduced-rate fares for site inspections, with the discount based upon the meeting's potential to generate business for the airline. 
    Furthermore, association staff members may qualify to earn airline tickets based on the number of travelers booking under that association's group account (STARfile number). If more than one event is booked, association staff ticket allocation will be based on accumulated passenger totals. 
    For bookings made up to 11 months in advance, groups of more than 10 can block space together when traveling to the same city. Along with the break on fare, such groups can assign passenger names 30 days prior to departure, are allowed one name change per ticket, and do not require a Saturday or minimum stay.
    American also offers a service whereby groups of 10 or more passengers booked on a single reservation can check in with a self-service machine, thereby avoiding lines at check-in.