On Tuesday, Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates forecast that business travel will decline by 50%, even after the coronavirus crisis ends. He predicted a “very high threshold” for business trips as people work from home and use social media to meet.
“My prediction would be that over 50% of business travel and over 30% of days in the office will go away,” Gates told The New York Times’ Dealbook conference.
In other news, my computer keeps asking me to sign in to Microsoft Teams.
Gates is a widely admired philanthropist and leader of the fight against coronavirus, but let’s acknowledge that his view of the airline industry could be clouded by pro-technology bias.
In the early 1990s, as video conferencing was gaining traction, my editors at The Miami Herald tried to get me to write stories about how this phenomenon would destroy the market for airline business travel. I ignored them. (Disclosure: At my next newspaper, I was fired.)
In 1990, the number of U.S. airline passengers totaled 466 million. In 2019 it reached 1.1 billion. In other words, video conferencing did not result in diminished air travel. Rather air travel more than doubled after it became popular.
In fact, while the newspaper industry was decimated by an inability to adapt to the Internet, so far the rise of technology has very clearly benefitted the airline industry. As an example, it enabled dramatic growth at United’s San Francisco hub.
No wonder that today airline industry leaders categorically reject the thought that the latest video technology will doom the industry.
“The first time someone loses a sale to a competitor who showed up in person is the last time they try to make a sales call on Zoom.” United Airlines CEO Scott Kirby said on the carrier’s third quarter earnings call in October.
On the Delta earnings call, CEO Ed Bastian answered an analyst’s question about pontification regarding business travel during the coronavirus crisis.
“Having been in this business for a long time, every crisis that I’ve been part of, and it’s been a lot of crises over that twenty-plus years, this was the first thing that people always talked about,” Bastian said, specifying: “the death of business travel and (how) technology was going to replace the need for travel.
“Every single time, business travel has come back stronger than anyone anticipated,” he said. “It will undoubtedly be different, but I think it’s going to come stronger than most of the pundits view.”
Bastian acknowledged that business travel could fall 10% to 20% for a few years before recovering.
It is important to remember that business travel did not just happen as a quirk in the system. It exists because businesses profit from it.
Additionally, many people enjoy it. Today, people regularly post on Twitter saying they miss the travel and the upgrades at airlines and hotels. Not long ago, a business traveler tweeted that she even missed the free pens and plastic bags with the names of the conferences she attended.
Last week, a woman from Durham tweeted: “I miss traveling so much and just remembered the unbridled joy that comes from eating a club sandwich from room service in bed while wearing a hotel robe and watching House Hunters.”
Additionally, a woman from Maine tweeted, “I miss standing in a crowded hotel bar in an unfamiliar city during a conference, with a drink in one hand and my phone in another, trying to find a place that can squeeze in ten of us, who normally live all over North America, in for dinner in thirty minutes.”
Mr. Gates, can I do this on Zoom or Microsoft Teams?