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Have Cards, Will Travel

Getting back to business travel

Necessary flying comes with both pros and cons in the current climate

Summary

Returning to the skies for business travel is necessary for some. But a lot has changed within the past few months. Here’s what you can expect if you plan to fly soon.

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My sister Shannon is a business travel road warrior – one of the millions of flyers in America who are in the sky multiple times a week, commuting between cities for meetings and trainings. She’s also one of the millions of business travelers who have been grounded for months, attempting to do her face-to-face facilitation work over the internet. That is, until a few weeks ago, when her business called her back to the skies.

At first, I was a little nervous for her, knowing that many businesses have cancelled employee travel for the remainder of the year. Then, I realized that I was also a little excited to have someone on the frontlines who could give me a window back into my favorite world of airplanes and airports.

Since mid-July, she’s been back to traveling at least twice a week – mostly on American Airlines via Dallas (DFW) – reporting in daily to her nerdy travel sister (me). Sometimes she’ll even take me on a live walk through DFW to show me the closed airport lounges and the boarding gates full of mask-wearing passengers.

Like returning to hotels, returning to airports and airplanes (even virtually) is a bit of a surreal experience.

If you’re not traveling yet, but wondering what it looks and feels like on the inside and what you can expect when you are ready to get back to the business of flying yourself, here’s a summary of what Shannon is seeing:

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See related: Four ways to earn frequent flyer miles without flying

A road warrior’s report on returning to business travel

1. The best part: more upgrades

While more people return to flying each month, airline traffic is still significantly down. Fewer people, and especially fewer business travelers, does, however, have some upsides.

According to Shannon, the best part of pandemic business travel can be summed up into two words: more upgrades. Business travelers love upgrades, and when travel is busy, there are never enough upgrades to go around.

“Overall, there are just fewer business travelers, so there is much less competition for first-class seats,”

she reports. “I’ve been on 22 flights since I started flying again, and I’ve been upgraded about 80% of the time.”

The upgrade list just isn’t as long with fewer elites working remotely. Even elites with lower levels of status are now getting bumped up to first class. “As an AA Platinum Pro (not even the highest level of status) before the pandemic, I’d only get my upgrade cleared 30%-40% of the time, and most often only flights to smaller towns.”

See related: Airline, hotel loyalty programs extending perks for members through coronavirus

2. The worst part: fewer amenities

There are also downsides to fewer travelers – primarily in the way of fewer amenities on offer.  Airport shops remain closed, most lounges are still shuttered and lines can get long at restaurants with limited or no seating.

What is open in the airport really depends on the size of the airport and the terminal through which you’re flying. Shannon reports that in the American terminal in her home airport in Tampa (TPA), there is one coffee shop, one chain restaurant and one grab-and-go magazine/snack shop open.

“In Dallas, maybe 1/3 of things or less are open now. Some bigger restaurants and grab-and-go shops are open with half [capacity], and lines can get long because there are so few options,” she reports. “Last week, I waited in line for 25 minutes at the 7-11 in DFW to buy a bottle of water because it was the only option.”

When it comes to lounges (another favorite of business travelers), many are still closed. American Express Centurion lounges (my favorite place to go in DFW) remained shut across airports, as well as many third-party lounges, like those available to Priority Pass card holders.

Airline club lounges are the exception with lounges like the American Airlines Admirals Club and the United Club partly re-opened in some locations.

In Tampa (TPA), the Admirals Club has not been open since March, while in American’s hub of Dallas (DFW), some of the clubs have reopened with limited hours.

“It’s nice when the club is open because it’s better than waiting in line for water, but it’s a different experience for sure,” Shannon explains. “You are greeted and seated upon arrival, someone wipes down your seat for you, and food and drinks are prepackaged. The business lounge buffets are definitely no longer.”

Another thing to note is that if you happen to have a domestic flight connecting out of an international terminal, you should expect even fewer shops or amenities to be open.

3. The good and the bad: More flexibility … but less flexibility

From the standpoint of scheduling, airlines seem to be nicer about flexibility, with new policies allowing you to change your tickets for little to no reason – even allowing ticket changes on the most inflexible ticket types, like American Airline’s basic economy fares.

The downside for the business traveler, however, is that there are not very many flights to be flexible with – especially if you’re flying in or out of a smaller city.

“In the normal world, if my workshop went late, I’d swap to a later flight to get home,” Shannon explained. “The airlines are offering more flexibility now – but there just aren’t as many flights to swap to. If something goes late, the next flight out is likely going to be the same flight the next day.”

Business travel is certainly a different experience than it was at the beginning of the year, but overall, Shannon reports it has felt safe, and passengers have even been spotted being courteous to one another in airports!

Hopefully, I’ll be joining her in an airport somewhere, someday soon when it’s my turn to fly again.

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