Business travel is dead. Long live business travel.
During a panel hosted by Guy Johnson, News Anchor, Journalist and Aviation Enthusiast, Bloomberg at the Aviation Festival, London, Alex Cruz, Senior Advisor and former Chairman & CEO of British Airways, Johan Lundgren, Chief Executive Officer, easyJet, Martin Gauss, Chief Executive Officer, Air Baltic, Shai Weiss, Chief Executive Offer, Virgin Atlantic Airways, and Julie Shainock, Global Managing Director, Travel and Transportation Industry, Microsoft, shared their views on the future of business travel in a changing marketplace.
“We know that we’re going through rough periods. I think it will recover. But I don’t believe that the permanent impact on business travel will be COVID or COVID related endemic measures. It will be CSR (corporate social responsibility) sustainability measures that corporations will adopt, at least for a while,” said Alex Cruz, Senior Advisor and former Chairman & CEO of British Airways. “I still want to test what happens when you have to compete between two different suppliers and who’s going to travel, etc. But I think, yes, the COVID related business travel recovery will happen faster than it seems. But there will be some permanent impact from a sustainability perspective at a corporate level.”
“The day trip to Brussels or a day trip to New York may be cut down by technology”
Shai Weiss, Virgin Atlantic, agreed with Cruz, adding, “The day trip to Brussels or a day trip to New York may be cut down by technology—you have Microsoft here—or because of CSR. But we’ve already started to see the recovery of the business traveller. I think, in the estimates, we’re saying business travel may return to pre–pandemic levels probably in 2023. We’re already 30% booked on business travel into the summer of next year versus where it was in 2019. And that’s not a bad indication of where it is. But the truth is the equilibrium is unclear to any one of us because every time we predict something, something comes up.” Weiss added that pandemic measures affect how executives who might otherwise travel business class choose to use their time, avoiding travel because the health requirements may add too much time to the journey. “I think they’re more sensitive to the allocation of time.”
Martin Gauss, CEO of Air Baltic, said the business traveller profile is changing. “We are still 30% down on the total passengers, but in business class, compared to 2019, it’s only 15% down. So we see more proportional business class travellers. It’s not the corporates because they don’t fly business. It’s a lot of other people who now want that freedom, that privacy that you have in business class. We see business class travel coming back, but not the same people,” he said. “I think more people will look for all the things you have if you book business class…The big corporations probably will not allow shorter trips on business, but individuals, smaller companies, will go for it because of the things you have if you’re travelling businesses. That’s how we see today, and that’s how we plan our hybrid model. We have a full-service business class in the front and an ultra-low-cost cabin in the back. It works very well, especially now in the pandemic.”
“The global financial crisis, there was a debate then, that business travel would never come back to the same levels, we just wouldn’t spend the money. It took, what, two years to recover?”
Johan Lundgren, CEO easyJet reminded attendees that there have always been doubts about recovery following a black swan event. Still, the demand for all travel classes returns, sometimes sooner than expected. He also sees a shift in the business travel profile. “You remember the global financial crisis, there was a debate then, that business travel would never come back to the same levels, we just wouldn’t spend the money. It took, what, two years to recover? And after 9/11 [there were predictions that] people would not fly…I think it’s difficult to see at this point, to know exactly what will happen. I think that there will be some mitigation. There will be more businesses in general, and there will be more growth from that end…The mobile and the remote work has blended. People will go on more leisure trips, I think, and take two days also to work. So that’s a type [of travel]. How do you categorize that—as business travel or as holiday travel?”
“Face-to-face travel can never be replaced. That is something that will always be there”
Julie Shainock, Global Managing Director, Travel and Transportation Industry, Microsoft, spoke to whether technology would make a significant difference, in this crisis, with people opting out of travel altogether now that virtual meetings are more accessible than ever to handle remotely. “You know one of the tools—Teams or Zoom—now, Teams would be my preference. But it’s a tool that’s here to stay. But there’s one thing I will tell you hybrid events are here to stay as well. I think you’re going to see more and more hybrid events come out as we move into 2022 and 23. You might have a mainstage event here, and then you might have regional events somewhere else. But the one thing I will say is face-to-face travel can never be replaced. That is something that will always be there. I agree with everyone. You may not do that one day or one-hour short trip—although I did do one recently, I went for a three-hour meeting. But you will still have face-to-face meetings. Nothing will replace that. I recently was at some face-to-face meetings, where we got more done in four days than we did in the past four months, just by being face to face. Those are the kinds of things that will never be replaced from a business aspect. The other piece I think you’re going to see is this whole leisure/business, and the leisure/leisure aspect will play a role going forward. People will do both, just depending on where they are and what they can accomplish.”
Shainock also had an optimistic prediction for future events, even as Covid-19 continues to complicate travel. “I mean, you have 250 million daily active users on Teams. That’s a big number. You’re going to continue to see Teams being used in this way. But my preference would be to travel. I think the World Aviation Festival, Terrapin, did a fantastic job of getting the PCR tests available to all of us here so that we could come to a meeting. I think that you’re just seeing some of the flexibility that the world will adjust to. I do think we’re going to adjust over time. This won’t be the last variant. There will be more variants. I think that it will eventually move from the pandemic directly to an endemic, and then it’ll be more like the flu, where we get a vaccine every year.”