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Airlines: Doom & Gloom

Airlines: Doom & Gloom

In reveiwing the travel press recently, it seems like everything is doom and gloom.

Now I’m not saying things are very bright at the moment for either domestic or international airlines, anywhere in the world, but I do think the nay-sayers have the upper hand.

Death of Business Travel

There has been a lot of speculation predicting the death of business travel as a result of the COVIC-19 pandemic. Now that we have been familiarised with the capabilities of Zoom, and Skype, and Facetime and Teams, what place does actual face to face meeting have? Especially if we still have to wear masks and be physically distanced?

The answer is although these video conferencing apps do add another option for keeping in touch, they are nothing like actually meeting with someone. Personal contact, will always be personal contact, with all the human to human contact and comfort that provides in building relationships. That will always be true, mask or no mask.

Is it really that big?

Corporate travel in America is larger than I would have predicted at about 60-70% of airline business according to industry lobby group Airlines of America. This is the bedrock of earnings for airlines. It’s the market that is prepared to pay last-minute full-fare ticket prices, rather than the bottom-of-the-barrel tourist discount market.

Company policies currently discourage travel

Corporate responsibility for employees, and health and safety, means that companies are discouraging air travel by their staff, and that is having a devastating effect on airlines, airports, hotels and other travel-related industries.

Its incontestable that airline traffic has been decimated due to COVID-19. Instead of the traditional Sydney-Melbourne axis being its biggest earner, it’s now Perth to Broome! To give you another example, Qantas is currently not running any flights between Sydney and Adelaide. In pre-COVID times it ran 6 or more. You can still get a flight on Jetstar, or on Virginbut that’s just two flights a day. Pre-COVID, Jetstar flew 3 or more, and Virgin 4 or so flights per day.

Qantas if flying nothing internationally. So, more than decimated.

It’s like 9/11

However, we have seen this before. Go back 19 years or so, and the world was rocked by the planes flying into the Twin Towers, the Pentagon, and thwarted by passengers, into a field in Pennsylvania. It wasn’t a pandemic, but it sure made everyone feel that flying was potentially very unsafe. It took 6 years for the airline industry to recover from that attack of terror.

The airline industry is well-versed in failure, with bankruptcies dotting the first two decades of the 21st century after years of heedless growth. Predictions of business travel’s demise proved premature after the September 11 attacks and again after the Great Recession of 2008-09.

Mary Schlangenstein, Esha Dey and Brian Eckhouse, for Bloomberg, re-published at AFR.com

I think business travel has a bright, if delayed future. Depending on the development of treatments or a vaccine, recovery by the industry from the Pandemic, might even be quicker than those 6 years back at the dawn of the 21st century.

Death of First Class

The other prediction is that First Class is in its death throes. Various pundits have been arguing this for some time. The support for this argument comes from the many airlines that have been eliminating First Class from their new plane fit-outs.

First Class on Qantas

There is no First Class on the Qantas new 787’s, up until recently doing that direct Perth to London flight. We have however been told that there will be a ‘super’ first class on the Project Sunrise A350 aircraft (currently delayed, and if they proceed with the project). We don’t know what it will be, but it will need to be suite-like to be competitive with airlines like Emirates and Singapore Airlines.

We might have to wait until those A350’s are ordered and delivered before we can travel in First Class on Qantas again if Alan Joyce’s prediction that the A380’s won’t be back in the air before 2023 is true. Mind you the A380’s might be back in the air before the A350’s for the Sunrise Project is even ordered.

First Class on other airlines

The argument about the demise of First Class runs along these lines – business class is so good now, that, why would you pay for first?

I think that argument is posited by people who have never flown First Class. Whether the pointy end of the plane is worth the price of the ticket, is a whole other question, which I will politely put to one side.

Let me say, I have never paid for First Class anyway. All my first experience is based on redeeming frequent flyer points.

But why is First Class valuable ?

But back to the question at hand – the first-class experience is pretty good if you like fine food and wine, and even better if you are a sucker for comfort and space and some extra attention when you fly, or if you find it hard to sleep on a plane.

It doesn’t solve jet-lag or get you there any quicker, but first-class certainly does make travel a pleasure rather than an effort. If you are flying an airline with chauffeur service, then you are cosseted from the door of your house, through to the door of your destination. It makes travel almost anxiety-free.

With that the case, there will always be a market for First – not a large one, and not enough to sustain such a cabin on every route. But as flying becomes more direct point-to-point, with 20 odd hour flights, First will become a necessity for some.

Will COVID-19 change first class?

On many airlines it already has. Some airlines aren’t even selling their first class cabins. Plenty are not flying the planes that have them (A380’s in most cases). Orders of service have also been changed, mainly by the withdrawal of service. This will doubtless change, with airlines finding ways of still spoiling their first passengers, but reducing touch points. What won’t change is the space and comfort of first class.

2PAXfly Takeout

Writing this has brought back memories of flying first on Qantas and Singapore Airlines to and from London, back in 2017. Both Airlines have refreshed their First Class cabins since then. But Qantas isn’t flying any first cabins at the moment due to the retirement of its 747 fleet, and the mothballing of the A380’s for the next year or two.

Singapore is back in the air, with limited international services. I think their A380 fleet is parked somewhere near Alice Springs at the moment, so your only possibility is flying a B777 in first with them.

I wonder when I will have that opportunity to fly First Class again? Even to just catch a plane. Damn you COVID-19!

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