November 01, 1999
Meetings & Conventions: Planner's Portfolio November 1999 Current Issue
November 1999 lawandplan.gifPLANNER'S PORTFOLIO:

The Law & the Planner

By Jonathan T. Howe, Esq.


Planners can ask for more than just a good fare when dealing with airlines

After a miserable six months of delayed flights, no timely information, plenty of misinformation and some notable incidents of air rage, airlines are getting about as much respect as Rodney Dangerfield.

Politicians are trying to boost their prestige by taking on the airlines. The airlines, in turn, are taking on the Federal Aviation Administration as well as flight controllers. And everyone is blaming someone else for the problems travelers face every day. What fun.

The current status of passenger rights could remain up in the air for some time to come. The Airline Passenger Bill of Rights Act of 1999, otherwise known as H.R. 700, introduced on Feb. 10, 1999, probably will be working its way through channels well into the new millennium. Should any part of this bill be enacted, it could impose liability on air carriers for violating passenger rights and could define the manner of restitution.

Adding to the political confusion are at least six other bills in the House, including H.R. 752, which aims to establish a national policy of fair treatment for airline passengers, and H.R. 780, designed to establish consumer protections for airline passengers. Are we having fun yet? Pricing policies, the disclosure of the percentage of seats available for frequent-flyer awards and other similar issues all will be volleyed among the various political factions in the months to come.

What is negotiated at the federal level ultimately will affect meeting planning. While we await the first-ever Airline Passenger Bill of Rights, we can take advantage of the negotiating power that exists today from the standpoint that airlines do not like empty seats and will continue to negotiate not only for individual loyalty through frequent flyer bonuses but also for group loyalty by courting meeting planners.

Cutting deals with airlines starts with the city pairs involved, meaning the departure and destination points. Airlines will be more flexible depending on several factors, including their yield management concerns and whether attendees will be flying into a carrier's hub.

Yield management refers to the airline's attempts to maximize revenue on a particular flight. The equation is simple economics: The more full the airplane, the more revenue for the carrier. Sophisticated computer programs churn out historical data on routes, information on pickup, statistics on the time of the day the flights in question run, weather forecasts and more. All these factors are mixed together to determine possible fares.

Getting a good deal for a group might be difficult, but it can be done. Along the way, planners should be wary of free-ticket offers; the price could be too costly. If you are using "free" tickets, be sure that you are able to make a firm reservation and that you cannot be bumped if a fare-paying customer wants your seat. Beyond negotiating fares, here are some other items you can request for attendees.

  • Last-seat availability. In other words, if there is a seat open, regardless of its current yield management rate, you get it at your fare.
  • Access to VIP lounges. This can be important for international destinations or a series of stopovers.
  • Ratio of paid seats to complimentary seats and other perks
  • Air cargo allowances
  • Marketing help for the event from the airline
  • Remember, from the standpoint of the airlines, giving away seats and discounting rates is not necessarily good business. From the standpoint of the passengers, receiving the most services for the most competitive price remains the optimal goal.

    Jonathan T. Howe, Esq., is a senior partner in the Chicago and Washington, D.C., law firm of Howe & Hutton, Ltd., which specializes in meetings, travel and hospitality law.

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