How and when will business travel be possible again?
“While the technology is helpful, it is essentially crap.”
The speaker was Michael O’Leary, chief executive of Ryanair. The subject: online meeting services, which have soared to prominence as the coronavirus pandemic grounds flights worldwide.
I had suggested to Mr O’Leary – on an old-fashioned telephone – that business travel by air would be slow to recover after Covid-19.
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As I have pointed out, Zoom and Microsoft Teams – the Ryanair and easyJet of internet congregation – have absolved hard-pressed executives from the grind of getting up at 4am to drive to an airport and fly to Frankfurt, for a dispiriting meeting at which they underperform due to exhaustion.
Instead, they stay productive in their pyjamas, though this is not advised for anyone office-bound for their online conference.
The Ryanair boss believes that coronavirus will actually increase the amount of travel for business, because it will make everyone realise how important actual face-to-face contact can be (even in a socially distant age).
One of his leading rivals, British Airways, evidently does not agree. On Tuesday afternoon the British Airline Pilots’ Association (Balpa) announced that BA CityFlyer – the operation based at London City airport in Docklands – had formally notified the union of 72 proposed redundancies. That represents 29 per cent of the total flight deck workforce of 248, exactly the same proportion of job losses at British Airways’ “mainline” operations.
The union said that the BA subsidiary had warned: “Its whole future remained uncertain as British Airways, its parent company, was still reviewing its own future.”
Balpa’s general secretary, Brian Strutton, called it “devastating news” and added: “The government is making this crisis worse for aviation by imposing restrictions on flying and forcing airlines into a death spiral.”
But could they both be right? Perhaps British Airways is envisaging a future for business travel that does not involve executives making very short notice decisions to travel, and paying hundreds of pounds for the privilege?
I sense that expensive and disruptive last-minute meetings could migrate to online, while more measured and better-planned business encounters continue and, in time, flourish.
Initially, when travel resumes at any kind of meaningful scale, businesses will be reluctant to send any employees anywhere. They will rightly want to observe a duty of care, not wanting to put workers at risk. Conveniently for cash-strapped companies, this aim will align with wanting drastically to reduce business travel expenditure – often the first casualty of any financial crisis.
Yet as we become less fearful of others, and more is known about the incidence and transmission of coronavirus, there will be a gradual increase. The cost pressure will continue, potentially to the advantage of budget airlines. With reduced inflight service, and possibly airport lounges becoming rarer (another obvious cut in tough times), the premium for “full service” business class will look a lot less valuable.
But British Airways’ policy of maintaining an empty middle seat on its short-haul services now looks prescient, and that alone will surely drive some demand.
I predict rival airlines will start competing for business travellers by marketing the option to buy an adjacent seat, ensuring that it is not occupied by a stranger. This “DIY” business class could succeed where previous attempts by Ryanair to grab market share from legacy airlines has failed. Perhaps there are Zoom calls going on right now about that very subject.
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