TSA to impede travel market recovery? Not buyin’ it

TSA airport security

When I finally crawled out of bed and caffeinated Saturday morning, I made the rounds on Twitter and found a bold statement by travel journalist Christopher Elliott: “Thanks to TSA, 2011 could be a flat year for travel”. Despite the digging he did, I’m just not buying it. Passenger inconvenience, especially when it comes to leisure trips, isn’t likely to have a major effect on the travel industry in 2011.

You’ve read it from me on Gadling before: it isn’t the leisure traveler that defines the travel market; it’s the business traveler. These are people who have no choice but to hit the road, whether because they are instructed by their bosses or because they recognize business opportunities that they need for growth or simply to keep their companies alive. As business conditions continue to improve in the broader economy, demand for flights is likely to increase, and those buying tickets will have relatively little choice in the matter.

We’re looking back on what’s shaping up to be a positive year for the travel industry, particularly the airlines. And, according to Elliott, on his blog, “2011 was shaping up to be the best year for travel since the recession began.” He cites expectations of higher prices, even if only slightly, but pent up demand by travelers for “long-postponed vacation[s].”

Thanks to TSA, 2011 could be a flat year for travel http://bit.ly/gsbOfTless than a minute ago via web

The next year of the recovery could be imperiled, however, by new measures implemented by the Transportation Security Administration, specifically body scanners. In fact, Elliott writes:

But now that the Transportation Security Administration has introduced full-body scanners at many American airports, and subjected those who opt out of the machines to an “enhanced” pat-down, the 2011 outlook has changed, say travelers.

To support this claim, he talks to Jeff Cohen, an Austin, Texas-based securities trader, who claims to be “torn about whether I’ll travel more next year or not.” Cohen tells Elliott he goes on “a couple of large trips a year” and had a big one in mind for the first half of next year, “to somewhere exotic.” Now, Cohen tells Elliott, “[T] he recent TSA crackdown has me rethinking that.”

Further, the Consumer Travel Alliance sees the traveling public as generally unlikely to increase its travel activity. Elliott continues:

A majority (46 percent) say they will travel “about the same” as they did this year. Slightly less than a third (30 percent) will travel more, while just less than a quarter (23 percent) will travel less. This contradicts several earlier surveys, which had predicted a significant upswing in travel next year.

The key word here is consumer. The focus, here, is on leisure travel. The needs of business travelers are again overlooked.

Let’s consider Cohen’s case for example. So, he’s rethinking his leisure travel plans for next year. If he has to hop on a plane to close a deal or bring in a new client, is he going to do that? Would he sacrifice a two-hour flight for a 10-hour drive do so? I don’t know the guy, but drawing on my white-collar experiences, I think I know how he’d react to a major business opportunity a few states away … and it wouldn’t involve turning the key to the ignition.

The business traveler really has little choice in whether to hit the road. Could he skip a business opportunity or pass on a project in favor of something local – or to wait for a gig nearby to arise? Of course. But, that would mean turning down the very fees that put food on the table. Sales professionals need to travel to bring in business, fulfillment teams (e.g., the folks who provide the good or service sold) may have to take to the friendly skies and support sometimes needs to be provided on site. This is just how the nature of commerce has evolved. If conditions continue to improve, more of these people will be buying plane tickets.

And, they’ll pay more for them.

The nature of business travel, given that it occurs in order to support subsistence or the accumulation of wealth (both important), is that it is inelastic, at least relative to leisure travel. There is effectively no choice but to get on a plane, unless extreme measures are brought into the equation. Since business travel relatively inelastic, these travelers will pay more, which supports a continued travel industry recovery.

The fact that business travelers tend to be willing to pay more for their tickets also means that they have less choice in whether to fly. Sure, there are tools out there such as videoconferencing and online collaboration software that can provide a substitute, but a recovering market means that there’s more capital available, which facilitates investment in face-to-face meetings. When your boss tells you to travel, you travel.

As a result, the decision to travel is itself relatively inelastic for the business traveler.

So, if the business traveler is the backbone of the travel industry recovery, the TSA is unlikely to get in the way in 2011, even if every passenger listens to the snap of a rubber glove before an invasive pat-down begins.

Now, let’s take a closer look at the leisure traveler. The impact of the TSA security measures may involve a bit of hype there, too.

Even before Thanksgiving, the close to two thirds of consumers thought the body scans weren’t a big deal, with 70 percent stating they didn’t expect the enhanced security measures to slow travel down during the busiest travel season of the year.

Further, economic growth, if it occurs, will provide consumers with more disposable income. Those who have an interest in travel are likely to become more ambitious, taking the trips they’ve always wanted to. Elliott finds many who disagree with this assessment, but there’s nothing like having a freshly filled checking account to alter your perspective.

We all love to hate the TSA, and I’ll admit that I’m among the many in that camp. There’s nothing worse than waiting in a long security line at a crowded airport. The notion of having to devise and carry out strategies for getting through the checkpoints faster indicates the absurdity of what goes on in airports today. Efficiency is as low as customer service, and there’s little we can do about it.

That said, will body scans and pat-downs impede a travel market recovery next year? It doesn’t seem likely. General global economic trends will determine how many people get on planes next year, not the policies crafted and implemented by government employees.

[photo by oddharmonic via Flickr]