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At 'World Routes,' Airports Court Airlines To Bring In More Flights


What happens when 3,000 airport and airline executives from around the world gather in one place? Lots of wining and dining, schmoozing and sales pitching, and there's one more night of it in Chicago.

That's where World Routes 2014 is taking place, an international aviation summit described by some as speed dating for the industry. Representatives of airports try to woo airline executives into adding new service to their destinations. NPR's David Schaper made his own arrival there.

DAVID SCHAPER, BYLINE: I'm standing in a vast exhibition hall in Chicago's McCormick Place where airports from all over the world have set up elaborate displays and are using free food, drink, entertainment and other goodies to try to lure in airline reps. The Chengdu China airport, for example, is giving away stuffed panda bears - the Vienna Airport, rich coffee - the Narita Airport offers Japanese sake while the Swaziland effort to drum up business...


SCHAPER: The drumming, dancing and singing by a group of natives of the tiny sovereign South African state draws a big crowd and also draws attention to the fact that Swaziland has just built a new airport. Sabelo Dlamini is its marketing director.

SABELO DLAMINI: Basically we are here to offer, you know, another alternative to Southern Africa - Swaziland. You know, the great culture - you know, the great eco-tourism - the safaris.

SCHAPER: And Dlamini says the effort is generating interest.

DLAMINI: We've just been meeting the Chinese airlines - the cargo and the passenger airlines as well. We have just been also meeting Copenhagen.

SCHAPER: Beyond the song and dance and free food and liquor - and yes, there is lots of liquor - this conference is about the meetings - representatives of airports and airlines sitting down together face-to-face to see if they could do business together.



UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: How are you?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Good to see you again.

SCHAPER: There are hundreds of individual tables for meetings that last 15 to 30 minutes, interrupted by this...


UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER: Ladies and gentlemen...

SCHAPER: ...signaling when it's time to start and when it's time to move on. Katie Bland is the director of the World Routes conference.

KATIE BLAND: We estimate that there's going to be around 16,000 face-to-face meetings that we know about. That's not including the ones that we're not going to know about - that delegates are going to be arranging for themselves.

SCHAPER: This is the part of the conference that is a lot like speed dating. Bland says the airport representatives use the sessions to sell themselves to air carriers in hopes of convincing the airlines to begin offering flights to their airports.

BLAND: I think it's helping to grow the world. It's helping to connect the world and to facilitate tourism - to facilitate trade on a global level.

SCHAPER: All of the elaborate freebies might get some to swoon, but getting airlines and airports a new relationship is going to take a market. Jim Compton is vice chairman and chief revenue officer for United Airlines.

JIM COMPTON: As a business, I will tell you, we chase demand.

SCHAPER: And Compton says that demand has got to be backed up by data.

COMPTON: Understanding demand and where it's flowing - there's tremendous data. Understating the economies of the countries, the cultures of the countries - there's tremendous data. All that kind of comes together and allows us then to match our fleet to that demand that's there.

SCHAPER: The emerging markets that are hot right now are in Asia and Latin America. But if any market stands to gain from this year's World Routes conference, it is the host city. Chicago's aviation commissioner, Rosemarie Andolino, says getting airline executives here is a huge advantage - one that she hopes leads to new jobs for the local economy.

ROSEMARIE ANDOLINO: Every 33 international visitors that come into our country creates one American job. We'd like to have those jobs here, in Chicago.

SCHAPER: Last year's host city, Las Vegas, added 120 weekly flights as a result of the World Routes conference. And Chicago is hoping to now expand its international flight offerings, too. David Schaper, NPR News, Chicago. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

David Schaper is a correspondent on NPR's National Desk, based in Chicago, primarily covering transportation and infrastructure, as well as breaking news in Chicago and the Midwest.