by William J. McGee | July 01, 2007

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.”

New players

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 business.

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 service.”

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.

AirTran plane flying

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.

Spirit Airlines in air
Spirit Airlines:
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.