They may not be able to get you out of the dreaded middle seat, but the heads of two major airlines, speaking at the recent Professional Convention Management Association Annual Meeting in New Orleans, told meeting planners that they want to help get their attendees to their next meeting.

In a frank and wide-ranging discussion on the state of the airline industry, Larry Kellner, chairman and CEO, Continental Airlines, and Montie Brewer, president and CEO, Air Canada, told PCMA meeting planners that they want to improve communications. “Be vocal with us,” said Kellner. “We have a group dedicated to meetings business, so it’s important that you tell us what you need, so we can try to accommodate you.”

Kellner was referring to Continental’s MeetingWorks program, which works with planners to schedule enough flights into a destination for an event. “We started doing it for the Super Bowl,” said Kellner. Then the company started tracking large meetings and adding capacity accordingly in those destinations, too. Air Canada also encourages communication from meeting planners. “If you’ve got lots of people coming to a city, let us know. We want to work with you,” said Brewer. The airline execs also encouraged planners to share attendees’ e-mail addresses, when possible, so flight-delay information can be sent directly to the travelers.

One thing Kellner and Brewer didn’t see changing anytime soon is capacity. It may decrease slightly in 2009, and more often than not, that middle seat will be filled. “We have to manage capacity. We don’t want to fly empty seats,” said Brewer.

Keynote speaker Jeremy Siegel—author, economist, and professor of finance at The Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania—gave attendees some hope for a better-than-expected year in 2009. Siegel cited statistics showing that the economy and markets are not the worst since the Depression, and that they are not even as bad as the recession of the late 1970s. The Obama administration, he said, is putting in place all the right policies, and, he believes, the stock markets and economy will turn up in the second half of 2009. “You’ll be surprised by the upside,” he said.

Other keynoters included Stephen Lewis, a humanitarian and former special envoy to U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan, who gave a riveting address about injustices in the world and how associations can help. New Orleans’ own James Carville, the Democratic strategist, and his wife Mary Matalin, the Republican strategist and former meeting planner (that’s right!), spoke about the charm of the city. Finally, New York Times conservative political columnist David Brooks closed the conference with his thoughts on the Obama administration. Brooks calls himself “giddily euphoric” about the change in the tone of Washington politics, though says he is less optimistic about the new economic stimulus plans.

The meeting unofficially attracted 3,100 attendees to New Orleans, down from last year’s total attendance in Seattle, but similar to that of the 2007 meeting in Toronto. Attendees were treated to a closing night reception at the Louisiana Superdome with a party on the football field. The Neville Brothers were the headliners.

Stephen Perry, president and CEO of the New Orleans Metropolitan CVB, said the city has put “the K-word” (Katrina) behind it. “The city is in its best condition in 25 years,” said Perry, with 100 more restaurants, new hotels, and spiffed up infrastructure. Meeting bookings are up 9 percent in 2009 over 2008.—Dave Kovaleski

For more from the PCMA conference, visit MeetingsNet’s face2face blog.