September 24, 2020

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Covid-19 won’t kill business travel, but everything has changed

covid business travel

Business travel is cleared for take-off again but travellers should expect changes to their usual working routine

Cabin crew, doors to automatic. Cross-check. We are clear for take-off…” Oh, it’s good to be back. After months confined to terra firma, pacing my apartment, pondering the world outside my window, and probably driving my partner to distraction, finally I am back in my comfort zone. Packing my suitcase, pocketing my passport and ordering a cab to the airport never felt so exciting.

And yet, I suspect I was not alone in feeling a little anxious as I ventured to Departures for the first time in what feels like an age. Because while aspects of this routine feel delightfully familiar, as we tiptoe gingerly back into travel, we do so in the knowledge that almost everything has changed.

Reminders of the new reality are everywhere: the ubiquitous signs, imploring us to keep our distance and our hands clean; the barriers blocking adjacent seats; the taped-off concourses; and of course, the dazzling array of masks.

Then there are other logistical challenges. Regulations are a moveable feast, meaning that what might be okay on a Monday is against the rules by Wednesday. Likewise, crossing borders and time zones means inconsistencies. I left New York where everyone was wearing a mask, arrived in London where most people weren’t; I then headed to Prague where no one was, before going back to London where now suddenly everyone was. You get the idea.

Less tangible, though, is the notion of trust. Can all these safety measures make us, the all-important customers, feel safe enough to travel and conduct business once more?

For now, the answer is no, at least not completely. Many remain reluctant to fly, research tells us; concerns about Covid-19 are a clear psychological barrier.

So, is this the end of business travel as we know it? IATA’s director general & CEO, Alexandre de Juniac thinks not. While a full recovery remains a distant prospect, he is confident that the industry will eventually return to pre-virus levels. The lure of human contact, he believes, will eventually lure us away from Zoom.

heathrow - shutterstock
heathrow – shutterstock

How quickly this recovery will gather pace is unclear; like so many things in this most confusing of times, it depends who you ask. Marriott, for example, says 70 per cent of its corporate clients will be able to travel within the next three months. Others though, are less bullish: The Global Business Travel Association says just 14 per cent of companies in its recent survey believed travel would resume in the next one to three months. Even de Juniac reckons we may be as many as three years away from what we once considered ‘normal’.

Time will tell, but whatever the recovery looks like, some things may well remain with us. One of those is a new packing routine. The traditional checklist – passport, boarding pass, keys, wallet, chargers, laptop and the like – has been supplemented with some new essentials: masks, hand sanitizers, gloves, perhaps a thermometer, even a pulse oximeter, all have a place in the 2020 travel bag.

Now I’ve road-tested a few of these, and the trick as far as I can tell is to maintain several options while on the go. Sanitizers now come in all shapes, sizes and designs; sometimes a splodge on your palm is what you’re looking for, but other times – such as when preparing your tray table on a plane – a fine mist may be more in order. Why deprive yourself of convenience and peace of mind when you can pack both?

Masks are now an established part of life, with opportunities for self-expression as well as nods to practicality. There’s the much-vaunted KN95, perfect for navigating the airport; or the more modest, slimline surgical type mask that might feel more comfortable when nodding off on a flight; and then perhaps a stylish option to sport if you’re heading out for a nice meal. Again, why restrict one’s self?

Once we are underway, there are fresh etiquettes to observe, too. We all understand social distancing and avoiding handshakes, but my colleague Dr Sanjay Gupta, CNN’s chief medical correspondent, underlined to me the importance of another key factor: duration.

The familiar sight of people congregating together at a gate, for example, becomes more of a cause for concern the longer that proximity goes on. On a flight that issue becomes trickier still, but the airlines now say we needn’t worry. The way air is circulated, through HEPA air filters – the same as you find in an operating theatre – mean that the risks, they say, are virtually eliminated.

The ingenuity on display elsewhere is, if you’ll pardon the pun, breath-taking in a different way. In BA’s business lounges you can now even order your food via QR code. It’s seamless and deeply impressive, a sort of ‘normality with caution’ if you will.

There is one overriding message here though, and it’s a crucial one. What’s important is that we, the road warriors returning to travel, lean into these changes and embrace them because of why they exist: for our own good.

The recovery is at a delicate stage and will only continue if we work with the airlines, hotels and the many industries still striving tirelessly to enable our tentative steps back to normality. Across the world of travel, staff have made heroic efforts to get us to this point – and done so while their own livelihoods have been under grave threat. They deserve our thanks and our support. So, let’s help them to help us, and together we can take to the skies with confidence once more.

Richard Quest is anchor of Quest Means Business and host of Business Traveller, which airs this weekend on CNN International.