American, US AIr Merger: What Might It Mean for Meetings?

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When the word came down on Valentines Day that American Airlines and US Air were merging, meeting planners of course began to contemplate how it might affect attendees who travel by air to their events. On the Meetings Community—aka MeCo—listserv, the sentiments seemed to be that the now-world's-largest airline, which will operate under the American moniker, will be mostly negative. Among the possible results listservers foresee: less competition, a consolidation of routes, fewer choices, and the loss of the US Air hub in Phoenix (which will be redundant given American's hub in Dallas/Fort Worth and operations in LA) and possibly Philadelphia. Oh, and service likely will sink to the lowest common denominator.

So far, most of what I've been hearing from travel pundits has been similarly negative (see "Consumer Traveler" Charlie Leocha's rundown of what he calls the airline's "hollow list of consumer benefits," and business travel expert and online travel columnist Joe Bancatelli's comment to the LA Times: "What I can see is 900 pitfalls. I don't see an upside."). As the Business Travel Coalition said even before the merger was announced, "From a consumer standpoint—individual traveler or corporate travel
department—there are few benefits to offset the negative impacts of this proposed merger that include reduced competition, higher fares and fees and diminished service to small and mid-size communities...previous mergers have already enabled seat capacity cuts, higher fares and billions of dollars in fees for ancillary services resulting in a financially strengthening industry."

Others aren't quite so dire in their predictions. For example, most of the unions involved seem to be taking a wait-and-see attitude, and of course the official airline response is that this is all good, and American has collected some positive quotes from several analysts and affected parties. Then there's this rundown of some of the potential pros and cons from CNN:
 

And others also see some possible upside. For example, some destinations, including Charlotte, N.C., and South Florida, think it might actually give them a higher profile for air travelers.

And the meeting listservers weren't wholly negative, either. One pointed to the Delta/Northwest merger, saying it provided new routes for Delta and more flight options for NW's mileage program. Another said it "presents a beautiful opportunity for a smart business model in the airline industry for a company that emphasizes customer service and low fares, instead of trying to 'milk' their existing customers for as much money as possible—regardless of the public perception of that process."

So, what do you think the latest airline merger will bring? And what effect might it have on meetings? Will higher prices and reduced routes make it harder for attendees to make it to your event? If that happens, I predict the hybrid trend will accelerate, and more large national conferences will have to find other ways to engage attendees on a local/regional level, either virtually or through smaller regional meetings in areas that are too hard to fly in and out of.

Or, if the airline execs are right and there are no changes or disruptions in service, well, I still think the above is going to continue happening, because I don't think the biggest barrier to attendance is travel per se, despite the hassles, security theater, fees, and inconviences. We've sadly gotten kind of used to all that, and are resigned to no leg room, no food, no service, and no human kindness when paying through the nose to travel by air. The biggest barrier for most of us these days, as we're all being tasked to do more with less and do it yesterday, is finding the time to dedicate to our own education. No airline merger is going to affect that one way or the other.

Please, tell me I'm wrong.

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