Airline Woes Escalate to Sky-High Levels

Last month, a perfect storm of imperfect weather and technical difficulties caused more than 600 flights to be grounded at approximately three dozen airports. The technical error occurred at 1 p.m. on Aug. 25, due to a communications failure at the Federal Aviation Administration's Atlanta area center. Following the failure, the National Airspace Data Interchange Network center in Salt Lake City also became overburdened and crashed. Subsequent delays were compounded by weather that included tropical storms lashing the Gulf coast.

MaryAnne P. Bobrow of Citrus Heights, CA-based Bobrow & Associates, had a group in transit. "I had a meeting at the Kansas City Airport. My group left late afternoon; most of them were headed east, were delayed, and got home around midnight or 1 a.m.

"I stayed overnight because I could not get a flight back to the West Coast," Bobrow added. "I boarded my plane in the morning and had to wait for about 30 minutes to take off because the FAA 'deleted' our flight plan. I was lucky to have a long-enough connection time that I did not miss my connection in Dallas."

While most delays were cleared up by the Tuesday evening, the residual effect of frequent airline difficulties has planners wondering: How can I plan for this? "While yesterday's mishaps and weather did not affect any of my attendees, I am receiving a slew of messages from the attendees regarding the program I have next week," said Megan Moiles, an independent meeting consultant. "They are worried about the hurricane that is possible for the Gulf region (which would affect transfers in Houston and Dallas). I'm currently working with my travel agent to reroute guests in anticipation."

On top of these problems, OAG-back Aviation Solutions, which compiles airline fleet, schedule, traffic, and financial information has projected that there will be more than 25 million fewer seats available by year end than last year.

Tim Brown of Tampa area-based In The News Inc., a custom lamination and engraving company, warned, "Planners and travel pros that are working with attendees and booking flights for any event more than 30 to 40 days out are at risk." Shawn M. Quish, CMP, ACC, of Worldwide Meeting Management, Inc., based in Dallas, agreed: "Confidence is weak at this point, but the only alternative is to go to web-conferencing, and nothing will ever compare to the emotions, reactions, networking, or training of face-to-face meetings."

Wendy Parsley, of New York City-based Quint Strategies, has switched to ground transportation whenever possible. "I either drive or take the train, even for trips up to 7 to 8 hours. I would rather find the time in my schedule to adjust for a road trip or a nice train ride than have to deal with an airport. Lately, I only book air travel for international flights or long flights, say more than 10 hours."

Originally published Sept. 8, 2008