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Business or Economy Class? Are More Travellers Turning Left?

Business travel in South Africa is booming, with travel numbers exceeding 2019. There is one remarkable change, though: it seems like South African corporates are increasingly insisting on travelling in style, with business class bookings far surpassing 2019 numbers.

This return to the front of the plane might be a boon for airlines, but it also raises several questions. Why has preference shifted to business class? Is it limited to the C-suite? Is it sustainable? What’s the business impact? A recent report by Corporate Traveller addressed these and more.

Strictly business?

As business travel is becoming more intentional and considered, it’s often only the higher tiers of the company travelling.

This goes against early predictions, which expected C-level execs to remain in their offices while lower-level corporates would be flying. The shift brought along with it new expectations: business class tickets, which come with their own set of pros and cons. More room and comfort means travellers can be more productive during transit and arrive rested and refreshed. On the other hand, there are obvious financial and sustainability implications.

With the benefit of hindsight, the move to the front of the plane is not all that surprising. Execs tend to be the individuals with the most sway and decision-making power, and it follows that companies would stand to gain the most by putting them first.

Now that younger recruits are also taking back to the skies, the question remains whether the demand for business class tickets will remain as high as it is currently. “We expect the demand for business class will slightly diminish as more layers of the company are going back to travel,” says Bonnie Smith, GM Corporate Traveller.

“However, important to note is that health and wellness have become a huge focus area for many companies. The effects of the pandemic and subsequent return to work revealed the many shortcomings in the system and have led both employees and companies to rethink their approach to well-being. Business travel presents a unique opportunity to offer employees health-centric benefits – premium-class bookings for longer flights, serviced apartments for extended stays, and various upgrades and perks. As such, we could just see more junior employees flying premium class and above for long-haul flights.”   

What about sustainability?

When it comes to sustainability, the onus is split between the airline and the traveller, and both have several ways to tackle the issue.

Airlines are taking a multifaceted approach which includes investing in more fuel-efficient aircraft and focusing on specific elements like optimising flight times and weight reduction. For travellers, it’s partly a balancing act influenced by several factors. And unfortunately, business class is taking its toll on the environment. The ICCT compiled a report analysing carbon dioxide emissions from commercial aviation from 2013, 2018 and 2019. The findings were eye-opening.

Passengers seated in business class are responsible for 2.6 to 4.3 times more emissions than if they fly in coach. The results are based on the floor space taken up by each passenger, along with weight considerations and other factors.

Dan Rutherford, the director of aviation and shipping-related research at the International Council on Clean Transportation, put it perfectly when he said: “If you turn right and go to economy class, it’s like you’re choosing a hybrid car. If you get on a plane and turn left into business class, it’s like choosing an SUV.”

Luckily, there are ways to offset your carbon footprint, even if you decide to travel in the front of the plane. “Today, TMCs are able to calculate your carbon footprint per leg, per flight. You can track your emissions against sustainability goals – and offset your impact through verified carbon offset projects. This is really important if you have frequent travellers – or travellers turning left on the plane,” says Smith.

“Corporate travel is in a constant state of flux, and that has a significant impact on decision-making. We’ve become experts in anticipating these changes and making quick adjustments to best serve our clients. By staying on top of the latest developments, we’re able to offer real-time expertise that saves you time and money without compromising your needs.”

Is it worth it?

The ROI of business travel is not the same for every company, but when executed with consideration and precision, its benefits can be exponential. Market dynamics drive airfares, and until COVID has been eradicated, they will remain unpredictable. But consider the financial implications of a new intentional client – or the loss of one. This is where your TMC comes in.

“Lean on your travel partner, and don’t be afraid to mix things up,” says Smith. “Your TMC will be able to use their own buying power to negotiate and secure special rates on your behalf wherever possible. Take their advice when it comes to booking ahead, booking out of peak times, or exploring new accommodation options.” 

Read the full SME Travel Trends for 2023 report here.

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