“Business class should be banned. These passengers account for twice the carbon footprint of an economy passenger, and the industry is guilty of preserving an inefficient and archaic model. A rethink is long overdue, and we call on fellow airlines to commit to a total ban on business class travel for any flight under five hours.”
Incredibly, the quote above doesn’t come from the speech of an impassioned eco-warrior, or a campaigner for greater social equality. It is a statement made by Wizz Air chief executive Jozsef Varadi during a mid-November earnings call with analysts. During the call, he tore into legacy airlines for persisting in an “unethical” approach to business class travel.
It’s hard to disagree. Business class travel – whether by air or by train – is one of the most weirdly wasteful and anachronistic aspects of modern working life. I fly frequently enough with British Airways to qualify for membership of its rewards program, ‘Executive Club’. Established in 1995, the name was presumably chosen to evoke memories of the golden age of air travel: of perfectly coiffured size eight stewardesses serving stiff G&Ts to besuited middle-aged white guys exhausted from a busy day of deal-making and cheating on their wives. If I accumulate enough tier points, I’ll be rewarded with Gold Membership of the Club, which would grant me access to exclusive First lounges.
The world has moved on.
People with ‘Executive’ in their job titles are no longer the most powerful people in a business – often they are the most junior. And all that glitters is no longer gold. Gold credit cards may have been a source of envy in the 1980s, but now they just look naff. I feel a little mean picking on BA, because pretty much every airline and train company has fallen into the same trap.
Despite this, business travel is growing at around 6% a year, and was expected to reach $1.6 trillion in 2020 (before the pandemic hit). But this growth is reliant on an emergent generation of business traveller, which is less likely to be tempted by the ‘golden age’ narrative and far more likely to be swayed by sustainability, diversity and authenticity. According to PWC, Millennials will account for 50% of the global workforce and rivals Boston Consulting Group reckon this group will also account for half of all business travel spending. Research by business travel expert TravelPerk paints a vivid picture of this emergent generation of business traveller: she prefers Airbnb and non-chain hotels. She flies most frequently on low-cost airlines. She frequently needs to change her plans. Frugality, flexibility and a frictionless digital experience are more important than pre-flight mimosas and a free washbag. And let’s not forget that this whole discussion is kicking off because of the sustainability of business class travel. A complimentary washbag (complete with plastic toothbrush) and an empty seat next to you are hardly guilt-free comforts.
So, what would frugal, flexible, frictionless and sustainable business travel look like?
The pre-travel experience will almost certainly emphasise intelligent digital services that provide real-time insight into the most pleasurable and efficient way to get you to your plane or train. Not only will unexpected delays or hiccups be ironed out before your eyes, but serendipitous opportunities – your favourite band happens to be playing in the city you’re visiting – will be pointed out to you. Frequent travellers may even have their tickets offered to them free of charge (which beats a complimentary members’ magazine).
During your trip, you’ll benefit from unobtrusive, invisible security and real-time updates and improvements to connecting modes of transport – right up to the doorstep of your final destination. Airline lounges will almost certainly still exist, but hopefully in an evolved form: less like a holding pen for the airport’s most selfish, entitled, boorish and insufferable visitors and more like the public spaces of a progressive hotel: places where kids and couples can feel as welcome as consultants. And why should lounge access be limited to the airport? After all, it might be quite nice to have access to a members’ club to visit whilst abroad. And a much nicer place to work than a stuffy hotel room. 60% of all business trips last year incorporated some element of personal leisure, so it might also be nice to throw in personalised rewards.
Crucially, none of this has anything to do with which seat or section we happen to sit in. Some of us actually like to turn right on the plane. But it might still be nice to pre-order food and drink, choose how roomy we’d like our seat to be, who we’d like to sit next to and whether or not we’d like a pair of pyjamas to sleep in and a wash bag to borrow or buy. Airlines and alliances with a ‘lifetime’ view of their customers will care about them whether or not they happen to be travelling ‘in business’ on any individual trip. You shouldn’t become a second-class citizen for a day just because you bought an economy seat for once.
Of course, all of this will be electric and circular… Eventually. So when you get home you can tell the kids that the trip you’ve just been on didn’t screw up their own opportunities to see and enjoy the world when they are grown up.