by William J. McGee | July 01, 2008

Airpline, climbingFor meeting planners, 2008 is likely to be remembered as The Year of Airline Agita. The soaring cost of jet fuel has led to shutdowns, bankruptcy filings, capacity cuts and fare hikes. And there’s no end in sight. A quick recap:

* In the first five months of this year, 24 airlines ceased operations around the world, according to the International Air Transport Association. Since December 2007, eight U.S.-based carriers shut down (in order of demise: MAXjet, Big Sky, Aloha, ATA, Skybus, Eos, Champion and Air Midwest). In April, Frontier Airlines filed for Chapter 11.

* Beginning in March, unexpected maintenance inspections by the Federal Aviation Administration grounded hundreds of airplanes at American, Southwest, United and other carriers, leading to thousands of delayed and canceled flights.

* At press time, talks of mega mergers between Delta/Northwest and United/US Airways had quieted, as Chapter 11 began to seem more feasible.

* Desperate to stay afloat, carriers have been dropping unprofitable routes in droves, particularly to secondary markets. In fact, airline service has been eliminated in 60 U.S. communities that had some airlift in 2007, and 37 more will lose all service later this year, according to the Air Transport Association.

“I’m completely irritated at the airlines,” says one planner who had to accommodate stranded passengers on two carriers due to maintenance inspections this spring. “We took a double hit.” Unfortunately, there’s more irritation to come.

Delays, cancellations, hassles

Kevin Mitchell, chairman of the Business Travel Coalition in Radnor, Pa., says the maintenance lapses uncovered by safety inspections are “the tip of the iceberg” and calls the FAA “dysfunctional.” He says, “This is fast becoming a duty-of-care issue for major corporations and bad news for airlines facing a slowing economy.”

A source at the union representing FAA safety inspectors told M&C that specific aircraft types or even entire airline fleets are subject to being grounded at any time, so passengers need to be patient all through the summer months.

Terri Breining, president of Concepts Worldwide, a meetings management firm based in Carlsbad, Calif., says planners need to brace for more havoc. “If I were doing a meeting in a one-airline town, we’d have to look at what other options are available. You can’t just move a meeting because of an airline problem. This really is about contingency planning -- and it’s very much a part of the meeting planner’s job. We haven’t had to pay attention to this in the past, but now we do.”

Lianne Pereira, associate director of events and meeting services for KPMG in Dallas, recently suffered through widespread flight disruptions from the region’s two largest carriers, American and Southwest. However, she’s philosophical when she discusses the FAA inspections that led to the chaos: “I think that was the airlines’ big wake-up call. It needed to happen. It showed the nation there was an issue. These delays are painful but necessary. I would rather be grounded than endangered.”