It could have been the beginning of a bachelor party: The margaritas were chilling, the guys were kind of restless, the nachos were hot, and so were the half-dozen leggy, beaming girls who looked as if they had just finished a photo shoot for Hooters Air. But these men — and if you were to look around the Kuala Lumpur Convention Center, you’d see they were almost all men — were in Malaysia not (officially) for late-night shenanigans, but for the Routes World Development Forum, an annual trade show/mating ritual in which airports try to sell themselves to airlines and get added to destination lists.
Route planning is an arcane and drawn-out process — messy with algorithmic solutions that take into account geography, demographics, and those ever-fluctuating fuel prices — that determines where and when airlines will put their steel in the air, as they say in the industry. It’s an especially difficult endeavor right now, with the global economy so uncertain and the airline business beaten down. The International Air Transport Association estimates that the world’s airlines will collectively lose around $5 billion this year. So how do you navigate in such turbulent conditions? To find out, I spent some time at the Routes Forum in October and learned that the aviation industry is trying to rally with a little male bonding and a whole lot of hustle.
The hype begins, as at many other trade shows, with the swag. As representatives of airports from Abu Dhabi to Zagreb move into their tricked-out booths, they hand out (and collect) enough freebies to trigger some massive excess-baggage fees after the conference. (We’re guessing everyone’s exempt.) There are golf shirts, stress balls, and even tiny bottles of anise liqueur courtesy of the Prague booth. And there are logos, logos, logos. (Oslo Airport’s is particularly stylish.)
In each of the three adjacent meeting halls packed with grids of small tables and slip-covered banquet chairs, airports try to court airlines in the industry equivalent of speeddating. Representatives of more than 700 airports and 500 airlines from around the world attended Routes this year. The airports usually initiate the meetings, requesting time with the airlines they want. It helps to have something to brag about: LAX was at the conference touting its multibillion-dollar modernization project, while officials from Dallas and Detroit were showcasing their airports’ face-lifts. But the big men on campus — say, the London Heathrows and the Denvers of the world — can always land meetings with their preferred partners, and many of them have “chalets” (usually known outside the industry as cubicles). Second- and third-string airports face frequent rejections and constant reminders that they are second- and third-string players. Explains Buddy Anslinger, a Continental Airlines executive: “If we know that only 20 passengers a day want to fly to, say, Minsk, we’re probably going to turn down that airport’s request to meet with us.”
Each session lasts only 20 minutes. And each airport has sent not just a lead negotiator but also a team of consultants who serve as matchmakers of a sort. Using proprietary software that crunches data any way you like, the consultants supply cryptic analyses to help their client airports press their cases. The airports will even offer blandishments such as tax abatements and landing-fee waivers. As an enormous digital stopwatch ticks down the remaining moments, an emcee — with a British accent, of course — announces, “The next session will commence in five minutes’ time.”
Were it not for the trade-show holy trinity — booze, buffet meals, and beautiful women — the mood at this year’s conference might have been a bit more glum. Airlines have been forced to pursue innovative route-planning strategies, from serving more markets on a purely seasonal basis to ditching destinations that in flusher times were cheap crowd pleasers (think Orlando and Las Vegas). Some have even rethought their raison d’être. Southwest Airlines, traditionally a leisure carrier, now aims for a 50-50 split between business and vacation travelers, according to Lee Lipton, its director of network strategic planning.
For the most part, no vows are taken at the forum. A successful meeting usually only means more meetings in the future — further opportunities to swap logo-emblazoned knickknacks and raise a few glasses to better times for the air-travel industry. Meanwhile, thankfully, nachos and margaritas provide some comfort — which is more than you can say for the flight home.