As we look towards 2021, one thing is clear in the future fog swirling around the COVID-19 pandemic: the way that many people will work has changed and will continue to change. That has massive implications for business travel, a key part of the puzzle of airline and route profitability.
With 2020 a crash-course in Zoom, Teams, Meet and other teleconferencing software, and with many large companies allowing or even directing staff to work from home, many people are rethinking the balance of where they live and how they work. Airlines and the wider commercial aviation industry need to be thinking about how that will affect them.
(That’s true even when situation for workers is a complicated one, fraught with equity issues around space within the home, proper safe home workplaces, technology or Internet access, the ability of some people but not others to move out of cities and suburbs to exurbs, work/life balance, colleague interaction, mental or physical health, the environmental impacts of regional dedensification, and more.)
But it’s not simply about workers whose jobs largely involve using a computer suddenly going fully remote. It’s that the 9-5, Monday-Friday commute is likely to become a thing of the past for many folks.
While that doesn’t necessarily affect aviation, it’s more that company headquarters buildings won’t be the same size, in the same place, or with the same function: they’ll increasingly be places to meet rather than places to work. And for business travel, that changes things substantially.
By and large, much business travel will continue. Ask almost anyone who has been locked down this year: Zoom is no replacement for handshakes and looking people in the eye. Sales trips, site visits and customer meetings will need to continue, even while the “this meeting could have been an email” translates to “this business trip could have been a Zoom call”.
It’s just that those trips won’t all be starting from the same city: they’ll be starting from new places.
Fundamentally, the origin — the O in the O&D — will change.
This is, by and large, good news for passengers at overcrowded major city O&D airports that were creaking at the proverbial seams before the pandemic. It’s even better news for rural and regional airports, which look set to gain lucrative business travel originating traffic, balancing the books on hub-spoke and even spoke-spoke connection economics.
(It’s also good news for regional rail services, and airlines should be thinking now about how they can better integrate their operations with rail operators in particular to offer comfortable, convenient intermodal service.)
The rise in low-cost carriers had northern Europeans doing this with inexpensive property in sunnier climes, leading to stories of semi-weekly or periodic “Ryanair commuters” jetting from Spain to the UK, for example.
While that’s perhaps an extreme example, if you only need to go into the office on average a couple of days every couple of weeks, the balancing act between home space, rent/mortgage, travel time and travel mode changes.
Airlines and the rest of the aviation industry needs to recognise this and make the most of it. The new commuters — and indeed business travellers — will need and expect to be productive more of the time, so actually productive airport lounges, airport workspaces and reliably fast inflight connectivity will be increasingly important.
But destination, the D in O&D, is changing too.
There’s a new set of opportunities around a new kind of business trip: focussed, output-based, higher-intensity project work, getting people who normally work remotely to a productive third place for collaboration.
It’s MICE travel and offsites for a new generation, and it’s going to be different from what we’ve seen before.
That kind of productivity facility doesn’t exist, but going from windowless hotel meeting rooms to a yawnfest hotel room and having drinks with colleagues in the hotel bar isn’t it.
But nor is it renting out a large villa or vacation home and expecting everyone to work from a single dining table.
If airlines aren’t thinking about how they can be part of this new world, how they can work with accommodation providers, coworking spaces, facilitators and other cogs in the wheel, they need to be.
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- COVID highlights how airlines need to focus on the whole journey
Featured image credited to the author, John Walton