by Michael J. Shapiro | January 01, 2013
Between 2007 and 2012, Pittsburgh International Airport experienced a nearly 40 percent decrease in scheduled flights. As US Airways shifted service away from the former hub, the carrier cut an average of 1.9 million departure seats annually from the city, according to data provider Aviation DataMiner Flight Schedules Innovata LLC. In the past five years, US Airways passengers have lost nonstop service from Pittsburgh to more than 50 destinations.

One might assume the local meetings market has suffered immeasurably from the diminished flight capacity. But that isn't the case, according to Jason Fulvi. "We're seeing record occupancy and revenue per available room right now," says the executive vice president of VisitPittsburgh, the city's destination management organization. "Up until this year, 2008 was our banner year in terms of convention room nights. Now 2012 has set the benchmark."

As legacy airlines continue to tightly manage capacity, reductions in the number of flights and seats are recurring at airports across the country. According to a September aviation industry performance review from the Office of the Inspector General, scheduled flights dropped by an average of 9.4 percent between June 2007 and June 2012 at the nation's 35 largest airports. Flight cuts occurred at 30 of those top 35 airports.

But Pittsburgh isn't alone in its ability to shrug off the apparent disadvantage. Memphis International Airport has lost nearly 42 percent of scheduled departures since 2007, according to Aviation DataMiner. The combined seat capacity of Delta and Northwest flights have dropped by 85.5 percent at the airport in the past five years. What has that meant for Memphis meetings? "We're coming off of our best convention year ever," notes John Oros, vice president of convention development at the Memphis Convention and Visitors Bureau, "and attendance at all of the conventions here was well up over their previous attendance in other cities."

"What we're seeing is there just isn't a direct correlation between flight volume and meeting RFP volume," says Anthony Miller, vice president of strategy for Active Network Business Solutions in San Diego. For example, request-for-proposal volume is growing for San Antonio, according to Active's StarCite Supplier Marketplace, despite decreasing flight volume, while in Charlotte, N.C., where flights actually have increased by about 12 percent in the past five years, StarCite's RFP volume has fallen by 21 percent.

Low priority for planners Fortunately for hard-hit destinations, flight capacity hasn't been a deciding factor for most planners. "It could have an impact on attractiveness of drawing conventions," says Bob Brindley, vice president of Advito, the consulting arm of corporate travel management firm BCD Travel, "but generally, air is the last thing clients are looking at when they're looking at sites for a meeting." Informed by findings of subsidiary BCD Meetings & Incentives, Brindley notes that "while air certainly can come into play in some advance planning, it's typically not the main driver."

That was the case for organizers of the One Young World Summit, held this past October in Pittsburgh -- which beat out Johannesburg, South Africa, among other destinations under consideration. That event drew 1,300 young delegates from 183 countries. "This is the only event that brings together as many countries in one place other than the Olympics," notes Henrietta Walsh, a spokesperson for One Young World. "Holding the event in Pittsburgh meant that most flights had a stopover in a larger U.S. airport, but that didn't cause any major problems with people arriving on time."

In terms of importance, Walsh says, the flight service paled in comparison to Pittsburgh's level of commitment to host the event. She cites examples such as the opening-night party held on the iconic Roberto Clemente Bridge, which the city closed to automobile traffic.

"If the destination is providing the right package and is the right fit for the piece of business, that overcomes the increase of flight costs or lack of direct-flight convenience," adds VisitPittsburgh's Jason Fulvi. "We track all of our lost business, and I can tell you that the category of air service is very low on the scale of why we lose business."