Business Travel Briefing
For May 5-May 19, 2022
The briefing in brief: How fast are business travelers returning to the skies? Delta Air Lines cuts more Sky Club perks. Finnair is getting walloped by Russia's invasion of Ukraine. Qantas offers special jets to fly 20-hour nonstops to New York and London. Spirit Airlines wants no part of a merger with JetBlue Airways. American Airlines slashes more commuter flights. Amsterdam's Schiphol Airport is an operational quagmire. And much more, including the daily Coronavirus updates.

As airline traffic in the United States has neared the 90% mark compared to the pre-pandemic days of 2019, an obvious question arises: How many of the returning flyers are business travelers? The answer: Depends on who you ask and who you fly. American Airlines claims that 85% of its pre-pandemic corporate demand has returned. Delta Air Lines (70%) and Southwest Airlines (64%) say it is a lower number. Alaska Airlines says its corporate demand is back in the 70% range and chief commercial officer Andrew Harrison notes a substantial uptick in flying by the high-tech firms that use the Seattle-based carrier. "There's been this material, as in 50-point, change in booking levels for some [tech] guys in the last few weeks," he said two weeks ago. Meanwhile, major European carriers are also experiencing different levels of business travel demand. Like its SkyTeam Alliance partner Delta, Air France/KLM says its corporate business rebound is now in the 70% range. British Airways says that it is around 67% systemwide, but nearer to normal on transatlantic runs. Yet Lufthansa, which controls Swiss, Austrian and Brussels airlines, says only half its corporate demand has returned.

Delta Air Lines insists it runs a better operation than competitors, but the facts rarely support that claim. Take airport lounges, for example. Because Delta refused to open premium class clubs at its hubs to match the United Polaris and American Flagship lounges, its Sky Clubs are often woefully overcrowded and sometimes closed to paying members because they are so far over capacity. Now Delta is doing what it often does: take away your perks to make up for its operational shortcomings. Effective June 1, Sky Club members will not be able to enter a lounge until three hours before departure. Worse, you won't be able to access a Sky Club at all after an arriving flight. There are some exceptions--for delayed departures or if you're on a connecting itinerary--but Delta is now the only U.S. carrier with this draconian policy. Still, that won't be enough. Delta has, belatedly, committed to opening what it will call Delta One clubs for premium class international passengers. Delta says the first will be a 36,000-square-foot lounge in Terminal 4 at New York/JFK. It is due sometime next year. A 10,000-square-foot branch at LAX is slated for 2024. Delta has released no details on the lounges nor officially committed to opening Delta One operations at other hubs.
        Long Beach Airport has opened a $26 million ticketing lobby and TSA checked-bag facility. The 16,700-square-foot ticketing lobby features common-use ticket counters and self-serve kiosks.
        Marriott Pittsburgh Airport is where to be for illness and sloppy hygiene. At least 200 people attending three large events at the hotel last month reported gastrointestinal illnesses and that led to an inspection by local health authorities. They found dirty silverware, mold in a vegetable cooler and a soap dispenser at the dish machine out of batteries. A subsequent inspection after Marriott claimed it had deep-cleaned parts of the hotel gave the property satisfactory marks.

One unbreakable rule of business travel: Always fly the nonstop when available. But will new, record-breaking nonstops planned by Qantas of Australia also break business travelers? The airline this week announced an order for a dozen specially equipped Airbus A350-1000s that will allow it to fly nonstop from Sydney to London or even New York. Flights would run about 20 hours from takeoff to landing and exceed by around two hours the current ultra-long-haul runs operated by Singapore Airlines to New York and Los Angeles. Qantas says its flying gas cans--the A350s will be equipped with at least one extra fuel tank so they can make the 10,000-mile runs--will be configured for 238 passengers across four cabins. A six-suite first class will offer each passenger a separate seat and separate bed. There will be 52 business class pods; 40 premium economy chairs with up to 40 inches of legroom; and 140 coach seats with 33 inches of pitch. Deliveries of the special aircraft aren't pegged to start until at least 2025, so no rush.
        Finnair is shaping up as the Western airline that has taken the heaviest hit in the months since Russia invaded Ukraine. Once a key carrier of traffic between Russia and the West, Finnair has already sold off four aircraft. It also is leasing seven others (complete with Finnair flight crews) to Lufthansa and British Airways. And since so much of its Asia service once operated over Russian airspace, the carrier has dropped several routes and added substantial flying time to others. Finnair's Helsinki-Tokyo route, for example, now requires an extra three hours and 30 minutes in the air as it diverts around Russian airspace. Its Shanghai flights require an additional three hours and 25 minutes.

JetBlue Airways belatedly jumped into the proposed merger between Spirit Airlines and Frontier Airlines and offered $3.6 billion to buy Spirit. Even before Spirit rejected the bid, JetBlue upped the ante this week by offering Spirit a $200 million break-up fee and a package designed to allay fears that the Justice and Transportation departments might oppose the merger due to JetBlue's alliance with American Airlines. That included divesting all of Spirit's assets in the New York and Boston markets and forfeiting some positions in Fort Lauderdale where JetBlue and Spirit share a hub. Spirit still said no, however, insisting that it believes the Northeast Alliance and a Spirit merger could never legally coexist. Spirit also claims JetBlue's overpriced bid is not actually superior to merger terms and operational synergies created by a potential Frontier merger.
        Breeze Airways and Avelo Airlines are already battling for dominance of the suburban traffic located between the New York and Boston airports. Now they are going head-to-head on another route: Both carriers will launch nonstops between Orlando and Charleston, South Carolina. Silver Airways already flies the route albeit with commuter aircraft and a less-than-daily schedule.

Amsterdam/Schiphol was once the sanest and least disruptive hub in Europe, but it's now a mess. Between KLM strikes and airport understaffing, Schiphol has seen a sharp uptick in delays, cancellations, mishandled baggage, chaotic security and check-in lines and even some flight diversions. At one point, the airport urged people to stay away because it was "too full." Bottom line: For at least the next month or so, leave extra time if you're connecting through Schiphol or consider using another airport.
        American Airlines continues to cut commuter routes. The latest casualties? Flights from its Chicago/O'Hare hub to Reno, Colorado Springs and State College, Pennsylvania. Also going: Phoenix-Bismarck, North Dakota. In fact, American says it'll fly 20% fewer regional flights in the second quarter than it did in 2019. American blames a pilot shortage at its commuter divisions.
        Hawaiian Airlines says it will offer free WiFi on transpacific flights from its Honolulu hub. But don't rush to buy seats. The first installation isn't due to begin until next year.