United Airline CEO predicts business travel will “return in full”

Zoom is more likely to replace phone calls than business trips, which are vital to building relationships.

By David Flynn, September 17 2021
United Airline CEO predicts business travel will “return in full”

Business travel will bounce back "in full" as the pandemic recedes, with Zoom more likely to replace phone calls than flights, says United Airlines CEO Scott Kirby.

Of course, Kirby like almost all airline bosses has a vested interest in such optimism, but his broad take for being bullish on business travel speaks to the heart of what those long flights and lonely hotel stays are really all about.

"Business travel is not about transactions, it's not about picking up phone and asking quick questions, which Zoom can replace," Kirby said during The Wall Street Journal Future of Transportation event.

"It's about getting to know people, getting to talk about their families, going out and having a drink or going to dinner – and that's where you develop those relationships, and relationships are really what drive business and what drive opportunity."

"The serendipity of being in person simply doesn't exist on a Zoom call."

Zoom calls are a more transactional, process-driven medium, Kirby believes – "very structured, you do A, B C, and that's not what business travel is about."

"Business travel may start there, but it's about exploring ideas that come up and having a fulsome conversation with a lot of people in the room."

Kirby admits the pandemic boom in popularity of videochat platforms such as Zoom, Microsoft Teams and Webex, along with hybrid events which mix in-person and remote elements, mean "there'll be some differences" in how business is done in future.

"I think Zoom and (online events) are going to replace phone calls, but it's not a substitute for building relationships and the in-person reaction."

"I am a firm believer that business travel is going to return in full (and) is going to completely recover once this is all over."

ET readers: do you agree with Kirby? How do you see apps like Zoom impacting business travel, and can videocalls really replace business trips?


David Flynn is the Editor-in-Chief of Executive Traveller and a bit of a travel tragic with a weakness for good coffee, shopping and lychee martinis.

20 Oct 2015

Total posts 235

Do I agree with Kirby? Not entirely. I simply don't see that business travel can completely escape the impact of Covid and return "in full" to where it was in 2019. I think it will be a slow recovery but there will be a lot of big international events like China's Canton Fairs which will see a lot fewer people attending. That said, I definitely agree with him that Zoom etc are going to be more a part of day-to-day business but won't replace most business trips. I think a lot of companies will think twice about sending somebody on a domestic trip such as SYD-MEL or SYD-PER due to not only the cost but the time out of office, even for SYD-MEL-SYD you are talking about losing half a day in flying time, getting to and from the airport etc, so they'll say "Can we do this over a Zoom call?" and more often than not the answer will be "Yes", and a lot of those business travellers will be happy not to have to fly if it means being more productive and still being home for dinner with family. But I agree completely that the big trips, the ones where you really have to be in person, will come back for sure.

The example of Canton Fair is interesting because it's very much about connecting manufacturers and suppliers from the east, with buyers from the west plus some other Asian countries. But with China adopting 'Covid Zero' as its policy I can't see any people from 'living with Covid' countries, which are the majority, being allowed into China, and I think that shows like this simply won't work in a 'virtual' format.

05 Oct 2017

Total posts 534

@LostInTransit, a couple of months back, the SCMP reported that mainland China intends to reopen it's borders only around July 2022. Somehow I can't see them waiting that long, even though the country is less dependent on overseas visitors than many other countries are, but in an increasingly interconnected world and China still being the world's factory, keeping the borders closed when others have reopened theirs is something I feel is doubtful. Without overseas buyers of their many products being allowed in, China's economy suffers too.

The long awaited China-Laos high-speed railway between Kunming and Vientiane will definitely open on December 2, 2021. Now there has not been any word on whether quarantine free travel will be permitted between Laos and China using the railway starting on this date.

I suspect the line will be either for freight transport only at first and/or travel will be permitted domestically, but not across the border, until sometime in 2022. This would mean a passenger getting on at Vientiane, would be required to alight at Luang Nam Tha or Boten (the border town) with a Chinese passenger coming from Kunming permitted to travel as far as Meng La or the border town of Mohan. That is my prediction for the first few months of operation, but how it actually happens remains to be seen.

The same can be said about the Guangzhou fair. The first one of the year, usually held around April, could go ahead in a limited format in 2022, with some participants from various ASEAN countries assuming they'll be allowed to enter by then. The October 2022 one is more likely to be accessible by most if not all nations. Of course, this just speculation at this point but I can see it happening that way.

05 Oct 2017

Total posts 534

Absolutely. Depends a lot on the type of meeting and industry you're in. For foreign business travel, particular in Asia where face-to-face meetings are important, then no, Zoom and Skype aren't a good substitute for an in-person meeting, except out of necessity.


11 Jul 2014

Total posts 905

This is pretty basic, if we are doing face to face meetings and flying all over the country like we did between lockdowns and competitors are Zooming who has the upper hand as the stats show (us). To catch up to our record breaking sales the competitors will have to do the same thing as us (face to face meeting). The down side to this is we caught them napping and have so much work we don’t want any more work till 2023.

Qantas - Qantas Frequent Flyer

21 Jan 2014

Total posts 318

Completely agree, my 10 trips a year to head office for a monthly meeting will not return, meeting will be held online in the future, our company has saved a fortune in travel. Public listed companies in particular will be reluctant to travel as they did before, shareholders will be demanding  a tight reign on expenses now they have enjoyed great returns in recent times, try being the CEO who advises a lower dividend because we spent it flying around the world.

There will be a lot of pent-up demand for businesses to reconnect, for clients to be visited and relationships renewed as different countries open up, but after that, some companies are going to want to stick with Zoom, Teams and so on. But I see that as only having limited application. There are a lot of scenarios where you have to be in person, in manufacturing for example, engineering, anything involving getting to see and touch products. I think trade shows, expos and so on will come back too but they will take a long time to rebuild because there will be some countries which won't have their borders open or won't be allowed in without quarantine.

05 Oct 2017

Total posts 534

Trade shows and expos will come back and all countries will eventually reopen. It is clear that North America and Europe are leading the recovery, with Asia-Pacific a good 6 months or more behind.

It's hard to predict exactly when we might see a semblance of normality return, but my money is on Q4, 2022. From late 2022 onward, it should be possible to schedule trade shows, exhibitions and international meetings overseas in any country, without much trouble. However, it is quite likely many such events won't be scheduled until 2023 unless they're targeting mainly domestic visitors, simply because they need time to get organised and until borders are fully reopened with no uncertainty, it makes forward planning very difficult.

If borders reopened tomorrow, I could book a flight on Sunday and be on a plane on Wednesday or Thursday for a meeting or to inspect a factory or some plantations, but a major exhibition needs about 12 months forward planning. A meeting can be planned in just a couple of days.

I'm getting regular emails about engineering and manufacturing expos being rescheduled. Whether they're being held in Vietnam, Thailand, Taiwan or elsewhere, most of them have now been tentatively rescheduled from this year to mid to late 2022 at the earliest.

I can't wait to be flying overseas to visit my clients and suppliers, I feel we have been 'treading water' since last year instead of being able to really progress in a few key areas, because the Zoom calls only get you so far. Even getting samples sent to me is taking a long time and costing a fortune, then we go back and forth, another sample dispatched and so on. If I'm visiting their showroom or factory I can get to the end result in a week. As long as there is no quarantine on arrival, apart from maybe up to 12 hours in the hotel waiting for an on-arrival test, and a short period of home quarantine on my return, then my passport is ready!

05 Oct 2017

Total posts 534

I totally agree with Mr. Kirby. It will return. I'm sure being an insider, he already knows what the future will hold, because he has probably already been briefed as when the Covid restrictions will finally be over. This is all political after all.

It will take time for this recovery process to occur, which will happen most quickly in North America and Europe, followed at some distance (6 months or so) by Asia-Pacific and finally the rest of the world.

I don't want to put a date on it because I've been burned before, but a recent Channel Nine interview and many other indicators suggest we will probably start to see major recovery occurring starting in about a year from now. Complete recovery may be possible sometime in 2023.

Qantas - Qantas Frequent Flyer

16 Jan 2018

Total posts 47

If there is anything we learn from history,it is that people forget. Down the track, people will start to ramp up business travels again.

Granted, some companies will realise that not all business travels are really needed; but in the long run, I bet the lure of travelling, the incentive of maintaining freq flyer status, combined with the need to maintain 'fair and just' company policies will see people at the top of organisations supporting more and more travels in the coming years, assuming no further pandemic like COVID.

Hi Guest, join in the discussion on United Airline CEO predicts business travel will “return in full”