Last week, Microsoft canceled three meetings in New Orleans that would have brought a combined 30,000 people to the city next year because the company felt there weren't enough flights for attendees to travel to New Orleans in a reasonable amount of time. The group was particularly concerned about international attendees.
Though Microsoft is the only group known to have canceled a post-Katrina convention because of limited air service, the move was still a blow to the New Orleans tourism industry, which says that such corporate meetings are critical as the city struggles to hang on to conventions and lure new ones. Contrary to initial reports, airport and convention officials had worked closely with the company, but they said little could be done about Microsoft's need for stronger international service. Meanwhile, some conventions with dates in New Orleans are urging their attendees to book flights early to avoid problems.
Although the airport made great strides in restoring flight service in the first months after the storm, the gains have come more slowly in the past six months. New Orleans now has about 61 percent of the seats and 65 percent of the flights it had operating before Hurricane Katrina. The airport serves about 25 percent fewer destinations than it did before the storm, increasing the chances that passengers will have to fly to a hub city such as Dallas, Houston, Memphis or Atlanta to catch a connecting flight. And planes are going out fuller than they were before the storm, making it harder -- and often more expensive -- to book a flight.
"There's just no flights," said Al Latham, a Denver real estate agent with a home in the French Quarter. Latham has traveled to New Orleans five times since Hurricane Katrina, and next month he's bringing 25 people from his office to the National Association of Realtors convention, the largest show to convene in New Orleans since the storm.
Stephen Perry, president of the New Orleans Metropolitan Convention & Visitors Bureau, said the bureau has been able to work with convention groups and airlines to make sure there's adequate air service for meetings.
"We're doing literally everything humanly possible," Perry said. "We're being more aggressive than ever."
But others say New Orleans is losing business because of its air-service challenges.
"Unfortunately, the answer to that is yes. I've talked with a number of groups that were booked or were interested in holding a meeting in New Orleans, but after checking into the (air)lift, they decided against booking into New Orleans," said Phillip Jones, president and chief executive of the Dallas Convention and Visitors Bureau and former secretary of the Department of Culture, Recreation and Tourism for Louisiana. "It's a real challenge for New Orleans.
But the airlines say it's not their fault.
With a lower population and reduced tourism to the city, showing sustained demand is a challenge. Airlines want to see at least 90 days of sustained demand for more service before they'll consider additional flights or larger planes, Hunter said, and there's a six-month time lag before the official enplanement statistics are released through the Department of Transportation.Fortunaely there may be a solution:
Your probably thinking that the last thing we need is another airline that's more than glad to suck us dry by charging outrageous prices, but not this time (miracle). One Louisiana native is trying to put together a New Orleans airline called DirectAir that would offer cut-rate fares to last-minute travelers. Though the idea seems unrealistic, it has stirred some interest among legislators which in return is prompting the state's 7-commercial airports to condider spending money to study the concept.So catch as Catch-22 can.
The airline would offer low fares (I've heard that before), and would funnel travelers from Louisiana's 6-regional airports to New Orleans, there they could connect flights serving 57 other cities in the U.S. and Latin America. DirectAir plans on using Boeing 737-300 or McDonnell MD-80 aircraft for the trips.
Now get this, DirectAir plans on offering $50 flights to Atlanta, $78 flights to Cancun, and $55 flights to Houston (again I'll believe it, when I see it). Passengers would not be charged extra for switching flights and would not pay extra for making last-minute reservations.