Sarah Wilson, CEO ACE Travel Management ATG UK
As we reach the end of a second year living through the COVID-19 pandemic, business is gradually returning to normal for many. Unfortunately, for travel, the recovery is slow. Despite the united front industry professionals put forward during the Travel Day of Action held at Parliament Square on June 23rd, we didn’t succeed in getting any targeted support from the Government nor any real commitment to making travel restrictions easier (or, at the very least, more coherent).
Then looking beyond the UK, no sooner did we begin to celebrate the US finally re-opening its borders after 20 long months than we saw Europe return to restrictions we had really hoped to leave behind. Add to that the civil unrest some countries in the EU are experiencing and the future of travel appears a little uncertain.
But hey-ho! We’re a resilient bunch in this sector – experts when it comes to tackling disruptions and last-minute curve balls. The industry has adapted and will continue to do so. And out of this need to adjust come positive results; the greatest being the fact that we’ve collaborated like never before to establish a more powerful voice, albeit one the Government still seems to struggle to hear!
Now, with 2022 drawing ever closer, I find myself asking many questions: will travel ever be quite the same again? What effect has the pandemic had on travel policies and programmes? What does the future hold?
Well, to start with, I predict business travel will become less frequent but more purposeful. The ban on travel has enabled many companies to re-evaluate their corporate travel spend and ensure any costs associated with travel are genuine investments and not simply an expense. Fewer people will travel for work, but those that do will be required to pack much more in to maximise their journey. Indeed, the data shows this is already happening: the average length of a trip in 2019 was 4.47 days. In 2021, it has risen to 6.1 days.
When it comes to domestic travel, many companies have all but banned it. Meetings are held virtually or, if absolutely necessary, employees must take the train rather than fly. Again, the data reflects this change, with same-day return flights decreasing by 74%. And for conferences, rather than dozens of staff members attending, businesses will adopt a hybrid solution – some employees joining in person and others participating through virtual reality.
Looking at how airlines are facing the new challenges in a post-COVID-19 landscape, we are seeing increased flexibility in response to the sudden opening and closing of borders and the fluctuating demands of travellers. Gone are the days of long-term schedule planning based on historic data and reliable demand forecasting. Now it’s all about real-time planning and capacity adjustments to create agile flight schedules.
Given their valiant efforts to make the best out of an awful situation, it seems extremely unfair that Heathrow Airport are planning to hike their fees early next year. The increase in charges won’t only place added pressure on struggling airlines but it will, of course, have a knock-on effect on passengers; the price hike will undoubtedly be passed onto them as higher airfares.
The one positive out of Heathrow’s decision is that it could give regional UK airports an opportunity to gain more business for transiting through European hubs, such as Paris and Frankfurt. We must look for the silver linings, after all!
Cost, climate and care – these have long been the guiding principles for us here at ACE Travel ATG UK, but they will also be the key drivers for most business travel policies come 2022.
In terms of cost, the last two years will have enabled companies to save significantly on their travel budgets. But costs will rise. What with reduced flight schedules, increased fuel costs, added expenses to meet sustainability targets and the extra level of care needed, there are many factors that will inevitably make travel more expensive than previous years.
Moving forward, making decisions based on the expected ROI from business travel will be paramount for companies wanting to counterbalance these additional costs. Of course, this is likely to extend internal authorisation processes and there will be more paperwork involved to ensure business trips are absolutely necessary, purposeful and cost-efficient.
Speaking on climate, I have to say, the travel industry has always been far ahead of politicians when it comes to considering the impact we have on our planet. We’ve been reporting on CO2 footprints for well over 15 years now.
However, it’s not enough to just tally up emissions and pay to offset them anymore. Merely ticking a box to get brownie points for being a little bit ‘green’ simply won’t cut it in this day and age. We need to be more intentional with our decarbonisation objectives – that means measuring, avoiding, and reducing, rather than relying wholly on offsetting.
Whilst this is a bit more of a challenge, we have such incredible technology available to us that we cannot shy away from putting in the hard work. Reporting tools are now so sophisticated they can analyse the aircraft type, fuel, weight, cabin and more. With such a comprehensive set of data ready at their fingertips, passengers are empowered to choose flights based on CO2 emissions rather than cost alone.
Airlines are reviewing their energy sources too, with Sustainable Aviation Fuel (SAF) already in use. Though the percentage of flights powered by SAF is small, the impact is big; it’s been estimated that this type of fuel can cut down emissions by as much as 80% over its lifecycle! Earlier this year, United Airlines announced their investment in electric planes with zero operational emissions. The company plans to use these aircrafts for shuttle routes across the USA. Across the pond, Air France has cancelled all domestic flights of less than 2.5 hours, encouraging passengers to use high-speed trains for domestic travel instead.
And we mustn’t forget the role of hospitality either. As organisations will increasingly be required to report on their sustainability policies (and suppliers to demonstrate their own sustainability commitments when bidding for client contracts), the challenge is to drill down on hotels and restaurants to determine which are the most eco-friendly.
Traveller well-being and duty of care is high on the list for developing purposeful travel policies in 2022 and beyond. With the new ISO 31030 Travel Risk standard (of which we, at ACE, were collaborators), organisations now have a robust framework that enables them to look at the whole journey with a fresh perspective and better protect their employees, from the moment the traveller leaves home to the moment they get back.
How much time an employee spends travelling outside of normal working hours is set to become a standard KPI. Ensuring travellers have an emergency contact both at the travel company facilitating the trip and within their own company will be crucial too. But what will perhaps be most challenging is the increasing need to find out what is important to your travellers and to accommodate their individual preferences – whether that’s having extra leg-room in-flight or access to gym facilities at their hotel. To successfully meet these needs, we must say ‘goodbye!’ to the one-size-fits-all type of travel policy and welcome in more customisable policies.
The COVID-19 pandemic has created much uncertainty in many aspects of our day-to-day lives. And travel is no different. I believe the key to remaining positive in the face of such rapid change is to take each day as it comes. Like I said at the start, we are a resilient bunch and it’s this resilience that will see us through in the coming months and years. The way we travel might have changed significantly – more precautions, more paperwork, more planning – but it is far from disappearing. People still want to explore the world and businesses still want to continue growing their international reach. Travel enables us to do all of this in a way that no amount of Zoom meetings will ever be able to achieve.
I want to thank everyone at ACE Travel ATG UK, for creating a united front, for weathering the storm together and for being such a wonderful team to work with. I also want to show my gratitude to all my colleagues in the industry, for your continued resilience and collaboration over the last year. It truly is a pleasure to work in the travel sector when surrounded by such fantastic people.
May you all have a merry Christmas and a brighter 2022,