Airlines need to modify their business models pending corporate travel return

A business class seat onboard an Emirates B777 plane

Business travel will bounce back, but in the interim, airlines need to be adaptable to fill first-class cabins, advises Emirates president Tim Clark.

Speaking at the virtual Arabian Travel Market, Clark rebuked claims that the business travel segment will fail to rebound due to the virtual conferences and Zoom meetings that have dominated in the past year.

A business class seat onboard an Emirates B777 plane

He elaborated: “You can’t get to know someone over Zoom. You can’t understand them or have that tactile human interaction that comes with MICE business. This human aspect is still as important as it was back in the 50s and 60s.”

The evidence, he said, can be seen in the mid-90s when the digital era came of age and the airline industry predicted a slump in business travel. “We got video conferencing and thought that would change everything (but) look what happened. We absolutely rocketed.”

While Clark remains confident business travel will return to pre-covid levels, he predicts it will take time. Meanwhile, the airline industry needs to be adaptable to keep its business class quota full.

During 9/11 and the 2008/09 financial crisis – when the corporate segment temporarily disappeared from travel – prices tumbled, which made business class seats affordable to a portion of leisure travellers which promptly filled them.

Clark said: “We saw that price points fell and the cabins filled up. (This is one way how) the airline community needs to be able to adjust to the changing nature of the market in the short-term.”

In addition, introducing more premium economy seats and measures that make business class flying more affordable is key to keeping the segment afloat.

Prior to the pandemic, Emirates trialled “unbundling” business class packages on select routes, where travellers could choose from an a la carte menu of business travel perks depending on their budget and needs.

As such, the airline will be rolling this initiative out this year, and this will “make business class more accessible”.

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