BUSINESS TRAVEL: Business In The Jetstream – Flights of fancy

The recession has inevitably taken its toll on business travel with companies looking more closely not only at the need for face-to-face meetings with distant clients, but the number of personnel they can afford to send, and the level of travel comfort required for the journey.
As the airlines put it – it’s not that business folk have stopped travelling, they’re just doing it smarter and more prudently. It’s inevitable that when times get tough, travel budgets come under closer scrutiny, says Singapore Airlines’ New Zealand manager of passenger marketing Murray Wild.
“That’s impacted in two ways – trips are only being undertaken if they’re essential to the business and there’s bit of downwards slippage in the class of travel. Some companies are looking at whether the journey justifies business class.
“But I don’t know whether that will have any long-term impact. There are already signs that companies are starting to travel again and if New Zealand is going to be an export-led economy, then they do need to get offshore to their markets.”
There is certainly greater degree of caution around travel decisions, agrees Air New Zealand general manager, marketing Steve Bayliss.
“There are still plenty of people travelling for business purposes both within New Zealand and internationally, but there’s lot more conversation around ensuring they get really good value out of it. While some people are decrying softening of demand in business class, especially out of Hong Kong where the financial markets really tumbled, what we’ve found is that demand is more up and down. It’s more unpredictable – but it certainly isn’t doom and gloom.”
Qantas marketing manager in New Zealand David Libeau also notes tightening in companies’ travel policies and in some cases swing away from premium cabins. “Whether that becomes longer term, who knows.”
So far it seems the outbreak of swine flu has had little impact on business travel – though inbound tourism has probably taken knock due to prominent coverage of New Zealand’s early admission of confirmed cases.
Meanwhile airlines are countering any reluctance from business travellers with policies of continual improvement both in comfort and convenience to attract and retain their top-line customers. Certainly business travel has taken step up in recent years with the introduction of new aircraft, more differentiated premium products and more comprehensive in-flight entertainment as well as on-the-ground upgrades to business lounges and the introduction of preferential processing that allows premium customers to avoid the cattle queues through immigration.
It’s been couple of years since Singapore Airlines started introducing the A380 to its routes, which spurred lot of development in terms of premium products, says Wild.
“That was when we introduced the “Suite” class which is step above first and very luxurious product. Plus we upgraded our business class (pictured) and that is now great offering – seats that are wide enough to fit two people side by side, big TV screens, upgraded cabin service, new service wear …”
Fully reclining seats are business class feature on B777-300ER flights between Auckland and Singapore as well as the A380 and “passenger corner” has been created for business class customers to pick up snacks between meals and socialise during the flight, says Wild.
“We also upgraded the inflight entertainment system across the whole fleet giving lot more movie options but also the ability for people to work during the flight if they want to.”
The Krisworld system provides access to comprehensive suite of office applications with work saved at the end of the trip by simply plugging in USB thumb drive or memory stick. And for people who want to use their own laptops, there are now re-charging points on all the seats, says Wild.
Singapore Airlines is also the first airline in the world to offer 3D games on the in-flight entertainment system.
As well as continuing in-flight improvements, the company is looking at frequent flier benefits and making it easier for customers to use points to upgrade – an advantage for frequent fliers whose companies may be adopting an economy-sized travel budget.
As well as improving the in-flight experience, most of the major airlines are doing what they can to improve the pre- and post-flight experience. As well as improvements Air NZ has introduced to the flight experience, such as increasing the pitch or distance between seats in the front of the plane or upgrading on-demand entertainment, there have also been dramatic improvements in the time it takes to get to the plane, notes Bayliss.
“One of the greatest points of leverage for us was to eliminate the whole notion of check-in if you don’t have bags and, if you have, to make it one-minute, no-queuing process. That means you can arrive later or go straight to an upgraded lounge and relax, catch up on email with WiFi or eat good food.”
But in terms of what customers want, it is horses for courses. Short-haul passengers want good on-ground facilities, while long-haul are more concerned about in-flight comfort. Says Bayliss: “It’s matter of looking at where the highest points of leverage are. We are really taking business-as-usual approach – continuing to invest in activities and innovations which have value to our customers because we strongly believe that organisations which stay firmly focused on the quality of the customer outcome, as opposed to getting hung up on next week’s sales volumes, will be in better shape when the economy improves.”
Qantas has been investing heavily in premium products over the past few years with new lounges in Sydney and Melbourne, complete upgrade of its first and business-class offerings as well as the introduction of premium economy option, says Libeau.
“Most of those things the airlines have control over are now pretty slick – we’re also working with other parties to sharpen up procedures around immigration and emigration so premium customers get seamless transition. We’re just trialling premium check-in lounge in Auckland for our customers – having an immigration officer stationed there so they can go through those procedures and then into an express lane.”
Singapore Airlines already provides the option for its premium-class passengers to avoid the queues through immigration, says Wild.
“Often the things that cause the most frustration relate to getting passengers from check-in to aircraft – the nature of the beast is that you have to go through passport control but that could change as technology improves. Some airports have started trialling iris recognition and that could speed things up bit.”
Despite the downturn, flight frequency remains pretty much unchanged though airlines may be getting more creative about how they apply the demand-supply model to keep seats full. As Wild notes, business travellers to and from New Zealand don’t have big choice of transport options.
“We’ve certainly got product we’re very proud of and one that is getting good response from the market.”

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