With the dramatic increase in airfares in 1996, executives who plan meetings may be looking at the new year with less than great expectations. Yet many airline analysts expect fares to stabilize or decrease in 1997.

"I think airfares overall reached a peak by Labor Day of 1996," says Terry Trippler, editor of the Minneapolis-based Airfare Report. "In 1997, barring any fuel-cost catastrophe, we will start to see fares not only level off, but moderate. There should be a reduction in overall fares for '97."

The Air Transport Association's chief economist, David Swierenga, agrees: "I expect fares to come down overall, although we are still faced with reimposition of the ten percent federal ticket tax, and that's one factor that may muddy the waters." (He says Congress may not act to reinstitute the tax, which lapsed on December 31, 1996, until the spring.)

Trippler and Swierenga's predictions contrast sharply with the 12 percent hike in average business travel fares in 1996 reported by American Express in September. And according to Trippler, the news is potentially as good for meeting business as it is for business travelers. "I expect that group fares too will probably stabilize or go down in 1997," he says. More carriers now offer some form of "zone fares" for groups--flat fares based on travel between specified zones, or areas of the country, says Trippler.

Zone fare programs take on added importance given the uncertainty over airfares, according to Maureen Pickell, Northwest Airlines' manager of meeting and incentive sales, Eastern region. Pickell says Northwest has zone fares, good for up to two years, for more than 70 cities in the U.S. and Canada.

Pickell declined comment on the outlook for 1997 airfares. But, she says, "Zone fares are not that vulnerable to changes in general. They are one way meeting and incentive planners can protect themselves."

In related airline news: * As part of its ongoing effort to compete more aggressively in the meetings market, Continental Airlines has formed the Continental Airlines Meeting Program Advisory Board. Composed of corporate, association, and independent meeting planners, the board will work to design a better system for tracking attendees who fly the official carrier--ensuring that organizations will get full credit--and to develop more creative reward programs. The advisory board also will help Continental initiate customized programs for large and small groups, corporations, and associations. Continental also introduced travel discount certificates for associations and other nonprofit organizations. The certificates provide discounts of $25, $50, and $75 off most published roundtrip fares in destinations throughout the U.S., Mexico, and the Caribbean. Associations receive up to two certificates per member, free, and can use them as perks for current members, or to attract new members.

* American Airlines has revised its zone fare pricing for group travel, making it less expensive and more flexible. The new fares range from $235 to $556, translating into an average price reduction of 20 percent. (Hawaii is more costly.) Saturday night stays are no longer required, the maximum stay has increased from 14 to 30 days, and there are no penalties for block cancellations 120 days or more prior to travel. The zone fares apply to destinations within the 48 states, Hawaii, and Canada that are served by American Airlines and American Eagle, American's commuter carrier.