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by • 8 December, 2016 • CONSUMER INSIGHT, TRAVEL / HOSPITALITYComments (0)1507

Business Class Travel: Departing 2016 on Gilded Wings

It’s well known that the business elite are disproportionately heavy travel consumers. As we conclude the year – this, perhaps the most unpredictable year on record – we predict manifold opportunities for luxury travel brands across the cruise, train, and particularly for first- and business-class travel brands.

Forced to tighten corporate spending and minimize travel expenses, corporations took a hacksaw to travel budgets in the most recent recession particularly as oil prices ballooned from 2005 even through 2014. Business class travel took a nose dive as fuel surged.

The year 2008 wasn’t unlike 1973, when orders for the Concorde – truly the apex of 20th century consumer aviation – were cancelled. Fuel and flight are strange bedfellows, particularly at the “upper class” end of the market, to borrow the term preferred by Virgin’s Airlines. 

According to the International Air Transportation Association (IATA), 90% of travelers fly economy, yet the remaining 10% – the business class travel set – account 30% of airlines’ profits. These few, elite passengers pay 5-6 times more for their tickets, and depending on fare schemes, might actually subsidize the fares paid by bargain hunters in economy classes. In the most recent recession, surging fuel costs saw business class travel purchases to decline 3x faster than economy class.

Between the recession and cautious recovery, some carriers like Aer Lingus, a low-cost Irish airline, opted in 2010 to remove business class. Other airlines created, or repackaged “Economy Plus,” as with United, Delta’s “Comfort+“, or “Economy Flex” on Scandinavian Airlines (SAS), at rates 80-90% cheaper than traditional business class fares but with perks like better legroom and alcoholic “refreshments”. These moves sought to gradually ratchet-up prices – and profits – for customers willing to pay a premium.

The current climate, however, suggests a revival of business class travel, with buzz of all business-class flights and terminals trending, and even supersonic concepts reminiscent of the Concorde, though most are rightly dubious that the concept could weather any future economic turbulence. Undoubtedly this resurgence of business class travel has been helped by downward trends in fuel prices.

Business Class Travel and Fuel: Strange bedfellows

Business Class Travel and Fuel: Strange bedfellows

As shown in a historical charting of crude prices, fuel prices hit an all-time peak in the summer of 2008. At the time, airline’s added “fuel surcharges” – many marketed as temporary – to fares, which helped spur the revival of airline stocks when fuel prices decreased immediately thereafter. Though the recession initially pressured corporations to limit employees’ travel spending, airlines were ensured quicker recovery than other commodity-dependent industries.

Looking forward, at the dawn of a Trump presidency in the US which bears implications the world over, we predict continued short-term profitability for luxury travel, and particularly business class travel by air which holds both potential for profitability in fare sales, as well as frequency in fare sales travel innate to this audience. The trick is to cultivate a culture worth the premium, ensure streamlined costs of customer acquisition, and build preference – which we generally distinguish from loyalty.

For start-ups, as well as established business class travel brands, the timing is excellent for renewing connections with the business class travel set – particularly the niche of millennial business class travelers now emerging.

For more forecasts on fuel, fares, and flight, contact us at hello@criterionglobal.com.

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