Top airline executives from around the world will assemble this week for their first face-to-face gathering in more than two years even as a long-anticipated rebound in global corporate travel remains a distant prospect.
The International Air Transport Association’s annual general meeting, which was held virtually in 2020, opens on Sunday in Boston.
Airline leaders are intent on showing up for in-person elbow bumps to demonstrate it’s safe to fly for business again. It’s part of an effort to revive a highly profitable segment of the industry beset by uncertainty over shifting return-to-office plans.
Similar conferences in other industries have been canceled or relegated to webcasts. But not for a business that’s all about getting there.
“We believe that it is vital to do all we can to meet as an industry face-to-face,” Alexandre de Juniac, IATA’s former director general, said earlier this year in an announcement postponing the event to October from June.
“Doing so will affirm that airlines can safely connect the world, demonstrate our industry’s resilience, and confirm the inestimable value of in-person meetings.”
Passenger traffic has begun to creep back for transatlantic routes since the U.S. said Sept. 20 it will lift travel restrictions on visitors from the U.K., Europe and some other countries starting in November.
Forecasts vary for when demand will return fully to pre-pandemic levels. Some expect a transpacific recovery could come as late as 2025, a year or more behind a transatlantic one.
While the executives flocking to Boston aim to signal business travel is starting to normalize, the number of attendees at the October 3-5 event is expected to be about one-third fewer than in 2019, mainly due to tight travel restrictions in the Asia-Pacific region.
Cathay Pacific Chairman Patrick Healy is among those who won’t show up, nor will the CEOs of Japan’s two largest carriers, although Qantas boss Alan Joyce has made the trip.
IATA, which represents almost 300 airlines accounting for 82% of global air traffic, is expected to update its forecast of industry red ink at the conference. In April, the trade group estimated carriers worldwide will lose about US$48 billion in 2021 on top of the US$126 billion loss posted last year at the height of the pandemic.
North Atlantic corporate travel traditionally has been a cash cow for the three largest U.S. airlines and their revenue-sharing European alliance partners.
Together, they control close to 75% of aircraft seats in the transatlantic market, which accounts for the bulk of their most profitable routes. For now, airlines will keep capacity tight and cater to less-lucrative vacationers.
“Leisure is going to lead the recovery on the international side and then comes corporate,” said Conor Cunningham, an MKM Partners analyst.
Traffic from the U.S. accounted for about 16% of passenger revenue for European carriers in 2019, the largest share, according to a September 24 report from IATA, while some 31% of revenue for U.S. carriers was earned from European travelers that year.
Delta variant delays
Airlines were dealt a blow as many U.S. employers delayed return-to-office plans to late this year or early 2022 amid the spread of the delta variant of Covid-19.
“The regular business travel we think of as travel for meetings and sales development and working together – all of that won’t come back in force until people are regularly in their offices in force” on both sides of the Atlantic, said Samuel Engel, head of the aviation group at consultant ICF.
A September poll by the Global Business Travel Association of some of its members found 77% had canceled or suspended international business travel, according to Suzanne Neufang, GBTA’s chief executive officer.
Among them, 18% plan to restart travel in the next one to three months. The group believes global corporate travel will begin to pick up in early 2022 absent another Covid-19 variant and assuming continued growth in vaccination rates.
“You never know for sure with Covid, but it feels like we are back on the road to recovery,” United CEO Scott Kirby said in a September 29 Bloomberg Television interview.
Overall transatlantic bookings jumped at United after the planned U.S. border opening was announced, and in the past week were higher than at the same time in 2019, Kirby said. The same boost occurred at Air France-KLM, Chief Executive Officer Ben Smith said recently.
“When we talk to our biggest accounts, they are telling us they need to make their first trips to see customers and colleagues,” Smith said. “The question is whether this will be sustainable.”