By Laura Bradley

Business class flights will have less booze. Airlines will be more receptive to MICE customers. The world may never return to 2019 levels of corporate travel.

These were some of the predictions made by Vice President, Sales, Asia Pacific, American Airlines Shane Hodges yesterday afternoon during the Society of Incentives and Travel Executives’ (SITE) latest Motivate Series webinar, The Future of Air and Accommodation.

Mr Hodges, who was filling in for chief customer officer for American Airlines Alison Taylor, addressed the more than 200 global webinar participants and answered their burning questions about the future of corporate air travel. Below, I have summarised his answers.

Aviation more receptive to MICE

What was perhaps Mr Hodges’ most interesting assertion was that airlines will be more receptive to the MICE industry in a post-Covid world.

“We all know that organising an event is complicated. Well before Covid, American Airlines had gotten out of the MICE industry. It was too difficult, it was hard to price, it was hard to manage. Flight delays are okay to manage with two people, it’s a lot harder with 150,” he said.

“When Alison [Taylor] began, she put American Airlines back into the MICE industry. Every part of our airline changed in order to cater for this segment.

“In this way we were ahead of the curve. While I don’t believe corporate travel will return to 2019 levels for quite some years, what I do think we will see is the aviation industry being extremely receptive to the MICE industry.

“I think we’ll see a lot more flexibility, we’ll see a lot more products being launched, we’ll find a lot more of the organisation will be deployed to that segment, which I think is a great sign.”

Post-covid corporate travel levels might never return

While a greater emphasis on the MICE market was predicted, Mr Hodges conceded that 2019 levels of corporate travel may never be reached again. Well, at least not for quite some years.

“Towards the end of 2021 or maybe 2022, we’ll be back at 50 per cent of 2019 corporate travel levels,” he said.

“I don’t think it will get back to those levels completely, but we will get back to a significant portion of it.”

Mr Hodges predicted that corporate travel will be the last thing to return, with the airline currently witnessing a return of leisure customers but no return of corporate fliers “at all.”

His comments follow the recent prediction by Bill Gates that the number of business trips will halve in the future, and the observation by Amazon chief financial officer (CFO) Brian T. Olsavsky that the company has saved $1 billion on corporate travel since Covid travel restrictions were enforced.

Sorry folks, less alcohol

Don’t spit pinot over your screen in shock just yet. Mr Hodges assured viewers that alcohol on flights “will continue”, but, on first class flights under 900 miles, it will not be served as frequently as it was.

“You can certainly request it, but it won’t be as regular,” he said.

“This is just to minimise the time that our flight attendants are interacting with the customers.”

Mr Hodges added that complimentary items such as pretzels, cookies and water will be collected by customers before they board, and that travellers can wave goodbye to pre-departure drinks.

The meal service on flights 2200 miles and greater will also be served all at once rather than over multiple courses to limit the interactions between airline staff and customers.

Compulsory vaccination for flights?

This week, chief executive officer (CEO) of Qantas Alan Joyce said that all passengers will need to be vaccinated against COVID-19 before they are allowed to travel on an international flight. While Mr Hodges said American Airlines is having conversations around the implications of a Covid-19 vaccine, there is no definite answer to this question as of yet.

“We already do pre-flight Covid testing for some international flights, and we’re working with ‘Let’s Get Checked’ – an at-home testing option where medical experts can offer virtual guidance,” he said.

Stay tuned for more updates from SITE’s The Future of Air and Accommodation webinar.