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Major aviation conference said to benefit Chicago

Gregory Karp
Tribune reporter
World Route conference in Chicago could mean more flights, cheaper fares.

Many of the world's top airline and airport officials will descend on Chicago this weekend for a global conference that city officials say will be among the largest economic development events of the year for the city and the region.

Chicago officials expect about 3,000 people in the airline, airport and tourism industries to attend the annual World Route Development Forum, so named because it's partly a networking event where officials talk about adding airline routes to different airports.

Representatives from about 300 airlines, 800 airports and 200 tourism authorities around the world are expected to attend the 20th event, at McCormick Place, being held in the United States for only the second time.

Speakers include Jim Compton, chief revenue officer of Chicago-based United Airlines; Scott Kirby, president of American Airlines, and Tim Clark, CEO of Emirates airline.

Hosting the conference serves the dual purpose of showcasing the city to an international audience and attracting air travel routes to Chicago's O'Hare and Midway airports, which could ultimately lead to more route choices for Chicago fliers and even lower airfares, officials said. It also supports Mayor Rahm Emanuel's often-stated goal of attracting 55 million visitors per year to Chicago by 2020 and being among the top five U.S. cities in international tourism.

"This is the premier aviation business-to-business conference," said Chicago Department of Aviation Commissioner Rosemarie Andolino, who has attended other World Route conferences around the world in recent years. "It's a great opportunity for us."

The economic benefit of hosting the conference goes beyond the four-day event that starts this weekend.

"Any time you get exposure to literally every airline in the free world … I just think it strategically aligns with that goal that we've set," said Don Welsh, CEO of the city's tourism agency, Choose Chicago. "This gives us a great opportunity to target those airlines providing service from different parts of the world that align with growth markets for Chicago, i.e., China."

Last year, the World Route conference was held in Las Vegas, and was deemed a success by economic development officials there.

"Expanding air service is a long-term process, and being a host city raised our profile and helped further our discussions with the airlines," said Cathy Tull, senior vice president of marketing for the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority.

Since being named host city for the 2013 conference, Las Vegas added more than 120 weekly flights with an estimated annual economic effect of $454 million, not including gaming, she said. "Today, we continue to have constructive dialogue about expanding our air service in the future," she said.

While the 3,000 people expected for the conference is a relatively modest number for Chicago's major conventions, many will be from international cities.

Overseas tourists are especially lucrative to a local economy, spending an average of $4,000 per person, tourism officials say.

One American job is created for every 33 visitors to the U.S., and each full international aircraft with hundreds of overseas visitors can create up to 10 American jobs, according to the U.S. Travel Association.

The direct economic effect of the Chicago-hosted World Route conference, including business for hotels, restaurants, transportation companies and more, is expected to be $5.2 million, Welsh said.

While the conference is not open to the public, its goings-on can benefit Chicagoans by opening new air travel routes from Chicago's airports, especially direct flights to international destinations, Andolino said.

"More air service gives fliers more choices," she said. It also brings more competition, which often forces fares lower, she said.

For business travelers, more routes often mean more nonstop flights and more efficient use of their time.

For example, as of last month, O'Hare International Airport had all three major Persian Gulf airlines, Etihad Airways, Qatar Airways and Emirates, each offering nonstop flights to the Middle East.

Chicago is one of only three U.S. cities that can say that, Andolino said.

Andolino attributes attracting Emirates and Qatar, as well as 15 routes since 2011, to attending World Route conferences hosted elsewhere.

Those wide-body aircraft routes equate to about $200 million per year in economic effect for the Chicago region, Andolino said. "It produces real jobs and real economic benefits for the city," she said.

Welsh said Chicago's air travel capabilities are "a major competitive advantage." When his tourism group is pitching Chicago as a place for more conventions, industry meetings and leisure travel, air routes matter.

"We literally bring out route maps of flight service in and out of O'Hare as part of our presentation," Welsh said.

gkarp@tribune.com

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