Friday, September 10, 2010

If You're Flying Long on Business, They Owe You Comfort

I have been known to annoy those penurious persons who supervise spending on business travel at various corporations. That’s because I insist that a company which sends someone great distances on the road, far from kith and kin and exposed to the inevitable anxieties and occasional indignities of world travel, that company has an obligation, I say, to ensure that those employees travel with a measure of human comfort.

“Do you have any idea how much it costs to fly one of our people in the front of the plane?” one cranky corporate money-counter demanded after he corralled me in August at the annual convention of the National Business Travel Association in Houston.

Why, yes I do. In fact, my late parents in the 1960s purchased an entire fine brick house in Philadelphia for less than the current price of a unrestricted walk-up first-class ticket, return, between New York and London.

What is that actual walk-up fare now? Ah, it says here $18,228 to fly between Kennedy and Heathrow on short notice in British Airways’s highly regarded first-class. The price is similar on other top-quality airlines.

But does anyone actually pay this price? I asked the British Airways CEO Willie Walsh when I last spoke with him in New York.

“You’d be surprised. Some actually do,” he said.

“I wouldn’t,” I told him.

“Nor I,” he replied.

Well, some people simple have a lot of money. However, we all know that any corporate travel negotiator with the sense of a ball-peen hammer and with annual sufficient travel volume to lay on the table is able to negotiate first-class or business-class air fares, with any airline, that are substantially below that breathtaking walk-up price.

Airline executives always blanch when I ask them, as I always do, to tell me specifically how much of a discount I might expect if I were, say, Barclay’s Bank, dispatching thousands of fliers across the Atlantic each year.

Don’t tell anyone where you heard this, but the answer is: Major discount -- 40 percent, maybe more.

The New York-London premium market is, of course, the big enchilada. Still, one needn’t fly first-class. Business-class fares – I mean, Club World and its ilk ain’t a bad way to spend seven productive or restful hours – are significantly lower.

And most premium travel on routes other than New York-London is less costly. The Emirates Airline president, Tom Clark, made that point to me recently.

“We’re offering a world-class premium product at a far lower price,” he said, speaking of unnamed competitors, who should know who they are. The Emirates unrestricted first-class fare between Dubai and Toronto, on an A380 whose first-class cabins have private compartments and even showers in the lavatories, is $12,150. Of course, when you wake up in the morning you’re in Toronto, but never mind.

Business travelers who plan farther ahead and build some flexibility into their schedules, as many more now do, are often able to snag significant fare sales on premium travel. Look around, and you'll readily find business-class international fares in the $3,000-$4,000 round-trip range. A lot of dough, yes, but as I said, the company is asking a lot of you when it dispatches you halfway around the world. Let 'em provide for your comfort, I say.

Meanwhile, international premium travel is growing again. In June, reports the International Air Transport Association, international premium demand shot up 16.6 percent over the miserable level of June 2009.

Somebody’s listening, but I’ll continue importuning travel managers: If you are sending a valued employee on an airplane trip that takes over six hours, you owe it to them to put them in the premium cabin where they can arrive rested and ready to do your business upon arrival.

Or, if you insist (and so many do), where they can work constantly and productively the whole flight long, not wasting time on wonderful food, drink or sleep.


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