Covid Showed the Excesses of Business Travel


As recovery from the coronavirus pandemic continues, Bloomberg Opinion is running a series of columns looking at crisis-inspired innovations that promise better living over the long run — from  more resilient economies, cleaner cities and healthier offices to more flexible e-commerce and five-star meal kits.

I spend a lot of time around lawyers, so I can tell you with some authority that they were thrilled by one aspect of their work lives during the pandemic. They stopped flying. Lawyers who spent most weeks jetting from one courtroom to another were suddenly spending their time at home, communing with their families for the first time since forever.

More to the point, at least for our purposes, they were still able to work, thanks to Zoom and other conference apps. Status hearings that required cross-country travel could now be wrapped up from home in an hour or so. Most depositions could be conducted by Zoom as well. Yes, complex trials and important hearings would require lawyers to appear in person, but the routine stuff? No way. Not a single lawyer I know said they would ever go back to the bad old days of nonstop travel.

The airlines say that there is pent-up demand for air travel among people who have been largely cooped up in their homes for the past year. I don’t doubt it. But you know how most people buy tickets: They try to purchase them far enough in advance so that they’re paying as little as possible. Vacationers are important to the airlines — but they’re not nearly as important as business travelers, who often buy tickets at the last moment and are far less price-sensitive because their companies are picking up the tab. According to travel software firm Trondent Development Corp., business travelers account for 12% of the passenger base but 75% of airline profits.

A lot of those profits are never coming back. The law isn’t the only industry that has come to realize that much of its travel was unnecessary. Salespeople might need to travel to close a deal, but not for routine catch-ups with clients. Consultants can offer their advice from their home office. Internal business meetings really don’t require the senior vice president of marketing to fly in from Chicago or San Francisco or wherever.

The internet, through Netflix and other streaming services, disrupted the television industry, causing profits to tumble. Facebook and Google decimated the newspaper industry. And now, thanks to Zoom and the pandemic, the airlines are going to discover what it’s like to be disrupted. It’s not going to be fun for their shareholders or their employees. But it’s inevitable.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Joe Nocera is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering business. He has written business columns for Esquire, GQ and the New York Times, and is the former editorial director of Fortune. His latest project is the Bloomberg-Wondery podcast "The Shrink Next Door."

©2021 Bloomberg L.P.

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