Airlines look for rebound in business travel to keep recovery going


DALLAS — With summer vacations winding down, airlines are counting on the return of more business travelers to keep their pandemic recovery going into the fall.

Air travel in the United States, bolstered by huge numbers of tourists, has nearly recovered to pre-pandemic levels — even topping 2019 numbers over the Labor Day weekend.

Inflation — and especially this year’s sharp rise in airfares — raises concern about how long vacationers can afford to keep flying at their current pace. Airlines say they see no signs of a slowdown in leisure travel.

Business travel, however, remains about 25% to 30% below 2019 levels, according to airlines and outfits that track sales.

And it is not clear when — or if — road warriors will return to their old travel habits.

“The whole challenge for the industry is around the return of the corporate traveler, and whether he is going to come back in enough volume and frequency that is going to help these airlines,” says John Grant, an analyst with travel-data provider OAG.

The Global Business Travel Association recently predicted that corporate travel won’t fully return until mid-2026, 18 months later than the trade group had previously forecast.

Business travelers generally pay higher fares, so their absence has an outsized impact on airline revenue and profit.

Business travel is slower to return because it is more complicated than somebody deciding they want to take a vacation after staying home during the first two years of the pandemic, says Chuck Thackston, who leads data research at the Airlines Reporting Corp., a ticket-settlement firm that operates as a middleman between airlines and travel agents.

“On the corporate side, it just takes a little more to restart that because there are so many moving parts,” Thackston said. “If you want to go visit clients in New York, it could be that nobody is in the office in New York. That is slowly building back.”

Conventions and other big meetings are another key driver of business travel, and also seem to be coming back, Thackston said.

Airline officials say that travel by small-business operators has recovered nearly fully, but that many corporate travelers have not returned to the road or skies. They say that during the pandemic, some companies imposed tougher restrictions for health and budget reasons — even requiring that high-level executives approve all travel.

Business travel is a big deal worldwide. The Global Business Travel Association estimates that it was worth more than $1.4 trillion in 2019, then plummeted by more than half each of the next two years. The trade group estimates that after being hindered by the omicron variant early this year, business travel will hit $933 billion in 2022 — still 35% below the pre-pandemic mark.



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