Corporate travel comeback expected

When you look at the woes experienced by the airlines through this recession, it’s hard to escape the fact that there’s only one solution: the business traveler. Recreational travelers may be important, but that’s not where the real money comes from. Airlines salivate over the M&A banker who books a last-minute flight every week. As businesses were laying off and cutting costs, corporate travel suffered, dragging the airlines down with it. With a turn for the better expected this year, airlines are now looking for ways to attract these valuable passengers and the budgets the command. Bed-like seats are starting to pop up, and first class service is finding its way onto regional carriers.

According to airline consultant Bob Harrell, “The business traveler is the most profitable part of the traveler segment.” As much as these folks can be a pain in the ass (and I sure was back in my day), they are probably the most important passengers the airline has. Harrell adds, in USA Today, that even in coach, the smallest domestic refundable fare paid by the business traveler tends to be five times higher than the rock-bottom price paid for a comparable ticket by a leisure traveler.

So, to bring the valuable customers in the door, airlines are rolling out the perks. Luxury lounges, in-flight gourmet meals and other amenities, the airlines hope, will put the corporate traveler back in their seats. The airlines are even paying handsomely for the business traveler: Delta, for example, is pumping $1 billion into enhanced up-market services through 2013.Business travelers represent a unique opportunity for airlines, in that they command travel budgets that are quite large relative to their incomes. They travel frequently and often have some degree of choice in the airlines they use. Further, business need may render price effectively moot. This is the sort of passenger that any business would love, and the airlines are no different.

Cash, it seems, is the universal language.

Click here to gain more business traveler insights in my weekly “White Collar Travel.”