As the decimated air travel industry looks to rebuild operations in 2021, one thing is certain: airlines will be competing to win back the all-too-valuable business traveler.
Before the coronavirus outbreak, business travel accounted for 60 to 70 percent of airlines’ fare sales, according to estimates from trade group Airlines for America. Global spending on business travel was projected to reach $1.7 trillion by 2022, according to pre-pandemic numbers from the Global Business Travel Association.
“Nobody wants to lose this coveted business traveler, and they’re going to do what it takes to address all these future concerns,” says Meagen Eisenberg, chief marketing officer at TripActions, a corporate travel management platform.
Here are five ways experts see the business traveler’s flight experience changing next year.
Airlines might add fare classes with different perks
First, business travelers will likely see more perks from airlines—either included with their fares or sold together at a discount.
“Bundles, which is what the airlines are calling this package they put together where you’re purchasing a seat and maybe additional baggage, Wi-Fi, or a meal ahead of time, are a growing trend in the industry as airlines look to differentiate their product,” says Nina Herold, the chief product and operations officer at TripActions. “So you’re not just buying a seat on any old airplane, you’re buying an experience with them as a provider.”
This trend, which was underway pre-COVID but is becoming more prevalent, according to Herold, could also pave the way for more segmented fare classes for the same seats—both in business class and in coach—similar to the way basic economy and main cabin tickets are sold.
“And that actually comes with potential amenities associated with those more business-friendly fares,” says Evan Konwiser, executive vice president of product and strategy at AmEx Global Business Travel. “You might also get lounge passes or you may get other perks, Wi-Fi, that will be more attractive to the business traveler from a value standpoint, which will be great.” Also potentially included in the bundle? More flexible ticket changes and even COVID-19 tests upon departure and arrival.
Tickets and loyalty programs will remain flexible
One major reason why business fliers book with one particular airline over another is the carrier’s loyalty program. And since the crisis hit, airlines have introduced new, more flexible frequent flier policies. Most have extended elite status, lowered requirements for achieving top tier perks for 2022, and have rolled over expiration dates for miles. But will these changes last?
“Airline executives realize it’s going to take several years to get back to 2019 levels of demand,” says Jason Guggenheim, global head of travel at Boston Consulting Group. “And so as everyone is fighting for a smaller pie, what are the ways they can make themselves more attractive to travelers? And obviously flexibility in loyalty programs is one way, and business travelers value that.”
Konwiser agrees, noting that the flexible loyalty policies will stick around through at least 2021 and probably into 2022. But the idea of flexibility in business class goes beyond frequent flier miles. “Business travelers especially need to change, and cancel, and adjust, and research flights, on a regular basis,” Konwiser says. “We’ve seen airlines respond really strongly with the reduction of change fees. It seems there’s always some former sacred policy that now is up for review, and I think that’s signifying that desire for flexibility among business travelers is going to be paramount.”
Airline and booking apps will have more functionality
Amid a patchwork of travel restrictions, quarantine rules, and personal risk factors, air travelers have never needed to digest more information when simply booking a trip.
“Suddenly, crossing a border feels like this existential personal threat, and that puts a huge damper on international travel,” Konwiser says. In order to get business fliers back in the air, international travel needs to be more predictable, he says. “Lack of predictability in travel is one of the most threatening things to global trade.”
One good sign are so-called “health wallets” that standardize the requirements for both passengers and officials—the two most notable, according to Konwiser, being Common Pass, backed by the World Economic Forum and Travel Pass from the International Air Transport Association. Both are currently working on widespread rollouts.
Another problem for fliers will be accessing the right information at the right time. “There is no shortage of information out there about COVID, and depending on what your role in your company is, you need different information at different times.” says Herold, of TripActions, which has begun aggregating safety protocols and pandemic flight cancellation policies in its booking platform.
Airline apps, too, will enhance the amount of information available and help guide travelers through the new airport process, including testing and quarantine requirements. “If I look at United, the number of alerts and information and how they built out their app, it’s amazing all the type of information you get,” Eisenberg says. “So I think more and more airlines will be extending the information they provide.”
Service will be reduced, with fewer touch-points
Contactless travel was a well-established trend before the pandemic, but now it’s only accelerating, especially for business travelers. Service reductions may include self-bag check at the check-in counter, boarding with facial recognition, and even changes on board the plane in premium cabins.
Business-class meal service could be much simpler even as the pandemic winds down, according to Guggenheim. “Airlines are potentially more cautious from a cost perspective, but also just trying to streamline the experience and contact,” Guggenheim says. “Health concerns are going to be more front and center for a while even as we emerge from the pandemic. So things like food service and some of the other touch-points between crews and passengers [will be] potentially simplified.”
There could even be new touch-free ways to signal a flight attendant that are built into business-class seat consoles and integrated with passengers’ mobile devices, Konwiser predicts.
Business-class seats will feel even more private
The focus on social distancing might have an upside for premium fares: more spacious seats designed with passenger privacy in mind.
“Business classes have been moving toward more space and privacy pre-COVID for sure—I don’t see that stopping,” Konwiser says. “COVID, if anything, has shown the value of that space is more than just personal comfort.” Now, it’s also about the feeling of safety.
“That trend of having business and premium economy cabins that demonstrate more privacy, we’ll probably see a lot of creativity around that in the next five to 10 years,” he says. So passengers can expect more suite-style seating, with doors that close for an added feeling of isolation.
According to Konwiser: “Comfort in the air—and comfort is both a perception and reality—we’ll see a lot more innovation in the air around comfort.”
We’re reporting on how COVID-19 impacts travel on a daily basis. Find all of our coronavirus coverage and travel resources here.
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