Good luck with your next flight
The end of business travel means not much fun for the rest of us
I don’t know if you’ve traveled by plane lately, but commercial air travel is a bit of a hot mess at the moment. Southwest canceled thousands of flights last week, just as American did in the summer, and we’re learning that a thunderstorm in Florida can set off delays and cancellations across the network. When we traveled back to SF from Boston in September, we were sitting at the airport, waiting for our Jet Blue flight, only to find out it had suddenly and inexplicably been canceled. We had to rebook, lug all our stuff (and the baby) to another terminal, and just barely made it, only to get home and find we’d grabbed the wrong suitcase. But that’s another story.
One of the reasons air travel is so bad right now—and likely will be even worse in the holiday season—is that airlines are hurting. They used to depend on business travelers for as much as 75% of their revenue, even though those travelers were only 12% of passengers. During the pandemic, many business travelers realized they could do a lot of their work just as well without the hassle and emissions of getting on a plane. Airlines might tell you otherwise, but many of them aren’t going to travel anymore—corporate travel is still down 54% from 2019 levels.
I was curious about what that meant for the many businesses, like airlines, who depend on business travelers. What is going to happen to the hotels and restaurants and rental car companies who aren’t going to see most of that money come back? I found a frequent business traveler, Jason Henrichs, who took 46 round-trip flights in 2019, and just three last year, and called some of the places where he used to spend his money. They aren’t doing great. Some of the restaurants went out of business, one of the Boston hotels where he used to stay laid off a bunch of staff. I talked to one of the housekeepers, who applied for 30 jobs before she found a new one.
This is also the reason for the hot mess in air travel. Listen to their earnings calls and airlines talk about efficiency, efficiency, efficiency, which is just another way of saying they have a lot fewer employees and planes than they used to, and they are trying to run the same network with less. That means a lot less room for error, or bad weather, or flights diverted because of rude passengers.
It didn’t seem to me like anyone had much of a solution for this long decline going forward—most of the airlines and hotels seem to think business travel will return to normal eventually. I think they’re wrong. I talked to two longtime business travelers for this story, and neither of them plan to do anywhere near as many trips in the future. Sustainability plays a big part of that too, since one of the worst things you can do for the environment is get on a plane. Some analysts agree with me.
Here’s the story: Business Travel’s Demise Could Have Far-Reaching Consequences
What this means for the rest of us is likely more misery in air travel going forward. Airlines will do fine when the weather is good, and when the weather is bad, expect lots of cancellations because your pilot has been pulled off onto another flight and they don’t have any backups. Hotels are also more “efficient,” which means they really will try to convince you not to have your room cleaned for “sustainability” but also because it costs them less, and they may have an AI concierge instead of a human one.
And then there’s the whole vaccine kerfuffle — the head of American Airlines’ pilot union told me that 4,000 of their 14,000 pilots aren’t vaccinated, which is going to be a problem when American’s vaccine mandate goes into effect Nov. 24. Pilots say they’re worried about getting blood clots or other career-ending conditions if they get the vaccine (which isn’t supported by science) and are calling for the mandate to be delayed.
I’m on TV!
I was on CNBC last week to talk about my striking workers story. Even though the producers asked me many times how to pronounce my name, Shepard Smith still mispronounced it (Oh, to have an easy name like Jane Doe!), but it was still fun to do live TV. Here’s the link: https://www.cnbc.com/video/2021/10/13/a-wave-of-worker-strikes-sweeps-the-u-s.html