Despite their significant
financial woes and irksome service issues, the legacy
hub-and-spoke airlines still have their fans. Not suprisingly, many
meeting planners and bookers of group travel are among this loyal
faction, and why not? The one thing most major airlines still do
well is provide lots of flight frequencies, lots of available seats
and lots of bonus mileage -- all factors that can make meeting
planning much easier.
In recent years, however, low-cost
carriers as large as Southwest and as small as Spirit have become
more aggressive about securing group business. The results have
been quite mixed, but there’s no denying their three key
advantages: lower fares, lower fares and lower fares. For many
meeting planners, it makes sense to consider low-cost carriers, at
least on a case-by-case basis.
Steve Kinsley, owner of Kinsley &
Associates, a full-service meetings management firm in Littleton,
Colo., finds many of his clients are open-minded about alternative
air options. “For the most part,” he says, “our customers are not
beholden to any airline. They just want the lowest fares.” Kinsley
adds, “I think low-fare carrier service is as good, if not better
in some cases.”
For many low-fare airlines, the
emphasis initially was on serving vacation destin-ations and
attracting leisure bookings. There’s no better example than
JetBlue, which launched by connecting the Northeast and sun spots.
Now the airline has added corporate cities such as Chicago and
Richmond, Va., to its route map and is actively seeking meetings
In March, the beleaguered airline was
reeling from nationally publicized flight delays and cancellations
triggered by winter storms but exacerbated by internal miscues.
Even so, the company chose that time to roll out CompanyBlue
Meetings and offered a juicy incentive of 10 free one-way travel
certificates for every centrally booked group of 15 or more
travelers on the same flight by July 1. The program’s highlights
include holding seats for two weeks without a deposit, allowing
final payment 30 days prior to departure, and awarding planners one
free travel certificate for every 40 travelers booked.
“We’ve made a conscious effort to go
after the business community,” says Chad Meyerson, who was hired in
April 2006 as manager of group sales for JetBlue. He spent a year
interviewing hundreds of corporate clients, developing a database
of customers, attending trade shows and organizing fam trips. He
says the feedback from planners was that some cared about
incentives and perks, while others were focused on “just good
Meyerson says meeting planners told
JetBlue that airline booking policies are “one of their biggest
headaches.” Therefore, he says, his company modified standard fees
and penalties and allows up to 10 percent of seats to be changed,
as well as unlimited name changes.
In some ways, JetBlue is following the
big players, and in some ways it is leading the smaller contenders.
Other domestic low-cost carriers are providing special incentives
for groups. Among them:
* AirTran Airways.
Based in Orlando, this low-fare airline has developed an extensive
package of tools for meeting planners dubbed EventSavers. It
features 10 percent discounts on most fares, priority advance seat
assignments at time of ticketing, one free change per reservation
and discounted meeting rates through car rental partner Hertz. In
addition, travelers can arrive or depart up to three days before or
after the event (with no minimum stay or Saturday-night stay
required), and certain fare classes include confirmed
business-class upgrades. Meeting planners receive one free
roundtrip coach ticket for every 30 passengers traveling.
Frugal flying: AirTran Airways’
EventSavers plan offers
10 percent discounts.
* ATA Airlines. For
groups of 10 or more, the Indianapolis-based carrier offers
discounts of up to 15 percent and the services of group sales
specialists. Passenger names are not due until 45 days prior to
departure, and ATA offers one free tour-conductor ticket to the
group leader for every 25 paid tickets. An optional deposit payment
plan is available.
* Frontier Airlines.
The threshold is a little higher with this Denver-based carrier:
The meetings and conventions program is available only for groups
of 20 or more. However, discounts of 10 percent off the lowest
available fares are offered, and attendees have a three-day window
for pre- and post-travel. Participants can book online or through
the group sales desk.
Free name changes and more
* Spirit Airlines.
Groups of 10 or more passengers on the same itinerary are eligible
for the Miramar, Fla.-based airline’s group and meeting fares.
Benefits include free name changes for up to 30 days before
scheduled departure, a dedicated group desk, and discounts for
rental cars and hotels.