Business travel is increasing in the air, but remote work is still a factor

When Eric Goldmann embarked on his first business trip after 15 months of house arrest due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the avid street fighter felt himself returning to his true self.

Goldmann, who traveled almost weekly during the pre-pandemic era for his job in health tech sales, was so excited about his first face-to-face client meeting in June 2021 that as soon as he landed in Jackson, Mississippi, he “just ran until.” Hertz counter, got keys, exit airport.”

“I just felt — I felt alive,” Goldmann said. It was only after his meeting that he realized that in his excitement at being back on business, he had forgotten to collect his checked luggage.

More than two years after the pandemic disrupted business travel and company outings, work travel is on the rise. Atlanta-based Delta Air Lines says it has seen heavy business travel this fall, a season that typically sees more business travel and conferences following the summer break. Delta is based at Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport, the busiest airport in the United States in terms of annual passengers.

But the recovery still has a long way to go. Company sales are up after Labor Day and have recovered 80%, Delta said during an investor conference call on financial results this month.

According to survey results released by the Global Business Travel Association in October, business travel managers estimate their domestic business travel at about 63% and their international business travel at about 50% of pre-pandemic levels in 2019. About 78% of travel managers believe that your company will handle more business travel in the next year.

The rise of hybrid work could completely change the future of business travel, experts say, as more Zoom calls replace face-to-face meetings. Some who used to travel weekly are now traveling monthly.

The travel experience has also changed as airport and airline staffing issues result in longer wait times for services, more flight cancellations and busier and less frequent flights to some places.

Still, for many frequent flyers like Goldman, who said he thrives on new experiences and the adrenaline rush of talking to clients, travel is part of their identity.

“When COVID came and I sat at my desk, I went crazy,” he said. “Literally crazy.”

Hundreds of companies — from Fortune 500 corporations to small businesses — are headquartered in Atlanta, in part because of the airport’s easy access. Hartsfield-Jackson flies to approximately 200 cities worldwide, with 80% of the US population within a two-hour flight.

That makes Atlanta “the center of the air travel universe,” said Joe Leader, a frequent traveler who lives in Dunwoody, Georgia, and directs the Airline Passenger Experience Association. “You have more options here than almost anywhere else.”

For business travelers, the number of non-stop routes from Atlanta means far less need for connecting flights and the associated increased risk of weather-related delays, mechanical delays and baggage problems.

The peripatetic lifestyle has become part of the culture of a portion of the Atlanta community made up of itinerant consultants, salespeople, executives, and entrepreneurs. They tend to benefit from variety, social interaction, and frequent-flyer status with airlines.

There are so many frequent fliers in Atlanta that Delta has nine Sky Clubs in Hartsfield-Jackson. United and American – Philadelphia’s largest airline – also have their own airport lounges. When the Atlanta airport gates announce priority boarding for elite frequent flyers, it’s not uncommon to see dozens of people standing.

“The airport and the companies, the people who work here, had this symbiotic relationship that has led to more airline routes being developed and more people choosing Atlanta as their base of operations,” Leader said.

But even as business travel resumes with the advent of remote working and Zoom calling, many field workers are taking to the skies less frequently than they did before the pandemic. Or they visit customers Tuesdays to Thursdays instead of five days a week.

“Friday meetings are getting harder and harder to come by,” said Jamie Baker, an analyst at JP Morgan. “Most of our employees come back on Thursday evenings instead.”

Some geographic shifts during the pandemic are also transforming business travel and changing how and where people live and work.

Delta President Glen Hauenstein said he believes travel may never be the same as it was in 2019, “but it will be bigger in a number of ways.”

“We have people migrating from some of the bigger cities in the US to more rural areas or lower tax areas who have to come back to the office many times a year,” Hauenstein said.

For some, living near the world’s busiest airport because their jobs required a lot of travel could mean migrating away from Atlanta.

The head of the Airline Passenger Experience Association said he’s had colleagues who moved from Atlanta to other places like Lexington, Kentucky, during the pandemic, but are now flying back to Atlanta as a business hub.

“They are the ones who will stay away and travel back to base,” Leader said. “Remote work has changed the dynamic for field workers.”

But the travel experience has also changed since before the pandemic.

Labor shortages mean longer queues for service, some closed concessions, and less-skilled workers trying to serve customers at the airport. Delta Sky Clubs are busier as the airline has renewed elite status for business travelers who have stopped flying, hoping to keep them as loyal customers in the future.

Many hotels have reduced service and cleaned rooms less frequently.

Paradoxically, the reduction in business travel during the pandemic has led to increased demand from leisure travelers paying for first-class seats, according to Delta.

“All these road warriors who had their wings cut off a couple of years ago are taking more and more leisure trips because travel is what they love,” Leader said.

And for some, it’s hard to get back to the coach.


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