Friday 24 April 2020 11:24 am

Coronavirus: The end for business travel?

Nobody has missed the chaos caused in aviation by the Covid-19 crisis. One of the first industries to be hit, the global travel body IATA is forecasting a £17.3 bn revenue loss for the UK alone. 

With border restrictions coming into force across the world, international flights have become scarce and some business commentators argue that business travel will not return to its prior levels after the end of the pandemic.

A reason for this is that most companies are now working remotely and new communication solutions such as Zoom, Cisco Jabber or Skype are seeing a spectacular rise in their number of users. For instance, Microsoft has seen a 220% increase in Skype calling minutes since the beginning of the pandemic, while on its video calling software Teams the firm has seen a rise of 12 million users over the last seven days. 

Read more: Aviation industry to take billion-dollar hit

The mobile carriers are no less aware of the radical shift in recent weeks.

“The pandemic, awful as it has been, has taught businesses a lot about the benefits of digitalisation. A lot of myths about remote working have been vanquished and we will see changes once this is all over,” said a spokesperson for Vodafone. 

The company is already seeing an internal revolution with employees of the call centres working from home for the very first time. 

“We now have the knowledge that nearly all Vodafone roles can be done from home if needed,” said a spokesperson.

Jane Sparrow, an expert on remote working at The Culture Builders, considers that examples like these are evidence that remote working is experiencing a turning point. 

“We are not going to get back to normal, we are going to create a new normal. We won’t go back to exactly what we had before in society or in business, because remote working will be now a much more common and integral part of business than it has ever been,” Sparrow said. 

So is there any point to train tickets, global conferences or team away-days?

This is not the first time that the death of business travel has been foretold. 

Bob Mann, a New York-based airline industry analyst, recalls how fax machines, FedEx, Email and Teleconferencing were all in turn viewed as “business travel killers.” Nevertheless, business travel continued to expand despite the development of those “prior existential threats.”

Remote working also has its own limits, as technology cannot completely replace face-to-face meeting. “People will still need to meet in reality to build relationships and trust,” Sparrow said. 

Also, remote working is not free of risks. As the number of people working from home has dramatically grown, companies are more exposed than ever before to cyberattacks. 

“This is a time when we really need to pay attention to cybersecurity for anything that is supported by industrial control networks,” said Edgard Capdevielle, CEO of the IT company Nozomi Networks. 

Remote working is not the only hurdle awaiting business travels at the exit of the crisis. IATA forecasted that businesses would probably keep a tight control of their travel budgets if there is a deep recession, so that “business travel may not rebound swiftly.”

Fresh, an events agency based in Cheadle, Cheshire, is expecting that business conferences and large scale live events will progressively normalise between 2021 and 2023. 

“The recession that follows the pandemic will be another obstacle for the events industry, and it will depend on how quickly the economy recovers,” Rasha El-Shirbini, Head of Strategy at The fresh Group said.

In addition to this, there is another challenge that the aviation industry had already been facing before the COVID-19 outbreak, which is affecting business travel: environmental sustainability. More and more companies are adopting environmental commitments and are reviewing their travel policies.

“We are trying to limit business travel to necessary trips as part of our commitment to halving our environmental footprint by 2025. The faster adoption of digital working will certainly make it easier to enforce that,” a spokesperson for Vodafone said. 

IATA believes nonetheless that meeting environmental commitments and continuing to expand the benefits of international connectivity are not incompatible. Companies can reach this goal by investing in alternative fuels or participating in schemes designed to reduce their carbon emission. 

“We believe that air travel is on a pathway to sustainability and that there is not simply a binary choice between ‘to fly’ and ‘not to fly’,” said an IATA spokesperson. 

Although it is impossible to predict when international air traffic will resume, it is clear that airlines will have to cope with several challenges. Lufthansa, Germany’s flag carrier, predicted that it would take several years for air travel demand to return to pre-crisis levels. 

In spite of this, IATA considers that the recovery of the airline industry and business travel are a key prerequisite for the world economy to bounce back. 

“Business travel is not a luxury. It has developed and expanded over many years because it has strong economic utility and helps create the prosperity that so many of us took for granted just a few weeks ago. So, it is in all our interests to see a safe, secure and sustainable air transport system recover,” said a spokesperson for IATA.