Infrequent Flyers? How To Rework The Business Trip

Published on:
by Richard Turner, Chief Editor at KnowESG
Image of executives planning business travel at table
Business travel: If it's necessary, figure out how to make it add value.

Reducing reliance on business-related air travel can have a significant positive impact on the environment. We fly less, we reduce our carbon footprint and contribute fewer greenhouse gases to the climate change mix. If we think of global warming as a world problem in its most literal, atmospheric sense, then commercial flights offer perhaps the most tangible demonstration of the harm we are doing. We pollute the skies right at the source. 

Business 'Class'

However, the insatiable rise of business class airlines, first class flights, and even cheap business class flights has all become firmly rooted in our global culture as a benchmark of personal success. Think 'executive class', the 'C suite'. Being seen at the frequent fliers priority check in, zipping past the peons via fast track security, enjoying the attentive service that luxury travel affords, and developing a deep knowledge of many airports around the world. 

Then the darker side: a drawer full of business class amenity kits at home, all different airlines, testament to the amount of business class flights you've taken in the name of work that makes you a 'world traveller'. 

Business 'Travel'

Many of us aspire to get there, yet a culture of 'necessary business trips' must be challenged if we are to develop a responsible attitude towards transport and travel, one that puts climate change first. And anyway, is this really 'travel'?

The truth is, flying business class, first class, or even in an economy seat, whether your work takes you, for example, to the Middle East, New York, San Francisco, or Europe, is all about the perceived benefit of human social interaction. The trust factor of a handshake, the negotiating power gained in a face-to-face meeting, the most effective way to be sure that 'parallel computing', as this Harvard study puts it, can happen. 

As Mckinsey notes, the bulk of corporate business rebound flights will be 'FOMO' (fear of missing out), where companies send their people business class to ensure that important business relationships have that in-person touch. Small- to medium enterprises (SMEs) have fewer checks in place, so will likely continue to comprise a greater slice of the total passenger numbers. 

'Cheap' Business Class Flights

However, the 'culture' of business class also revolves around fiscal strain. Yes, there are other benefits, but all in the name of getting the job done as quickly as possible. Since the heyday of British Airways Concorde flights in the 80s that glamorised the notion of London Heathrow to New York for a deal-clinching lunch, brevity has been the watchword of business on board. Job done, same day return flight, back in the office the next morning. A flying visit, literally and figuratively. 

Average business-related travel now lasts (based on US figures) 5-6 days if international, and 2-3 days for domestic. And this accounts for over 12-13% of total air travellers, not a small percentage of total flights. And wait, 26% of business trips are just 1 day in total. This is not travel. Travel should broaden the mind. This is actually corporate cheapness, sprinkled with a very fine veneer of 'first class' or 'business class' fairy dust to give the impression of relaxation. 

Business Class Airlines' Profit Motives

To fly business class helps the airlines, for sure, since that 12-13% who fly also account for ups to 75% of airlines' total profits. This is in part due to 40% of airlines' business coming from selling air miles to credit card companies, which in turn drives much of the allure of business class flights for executives. 

Fly business class, or even first class on the company dime, then plan that next family long haul flight for 'free', or at a great price at least. And, on the way, drive the growth of the ancillary service providers, such as car hire companies, frequent flyers programmes, and so on. 

Airports are modern marvels, microcosms of the human planetary economy, and an important intercultural nexus. However, they undoubtedly create massive climate impacts: data show that jet engines account for 3% of global total emissions, or 12% within the transport sector. Equally, airline 'sustainability initiatives', such as Lufthansa's 'Green Fares', are simply greenwash. And yet, flights are in 'take off' in both richer countries and developing economies, with global airline passenger traffic growing 62% at the start of 2023 compared to the start of 2022. 

So, if flying isn't going away, how can companies find responsible ways to fly? Flying will continue to be carbon intensive and exact a severe environmental cost as long as we increase our aircraft addiction. Perhaps the better question is how companies can derive greater value from business class flights or first class flights in the first place?

Reduce Reliance Or Increase Value?

Of course, we can all meet online when flying isn't necessary. Instead of getting on the plane, get on the screen. Only a small proportion of meets should be critical in-person, and in an ideal world these would be catered to by effective means that do not include flights. Yes, trains, but hardly relevant until we get our collective acts together and make slow travel on rails a ubiquitous, cost-effective alternative to flights. High-speed, cross-continental, and dripping with actual class. 

In the meantime, consider making the most of your necessary air travel, and thereby the most of that awful carbon footprint and shame-inducing knowledge of your carbon emissions. Here is the proposition: where possible, consider slightly extending the trip. 

Upsides To Slow Travel

Yes, increased cost! But what are a couple more nights in a hotel in terms of providing actual 'down time' on either side of, for example, a 3-day packed trip to a business conference? Consider the compound benefits of stepping outside the agenda and actually creating a climate of camaraderie, post-event analysis, or even just a sense of pre-flight relaxation? The benefits of adequate sleep are finally being taken seriously at the corporate level, so why must we feel so tired and over-caffeinated on a business trip? 

Also, discovering a business destination on your own speed can only serve to increase local knowledge, develop stakeholder or colleague relations, and help you unwind after a hurried schedule of work. Rushing in and out of a place while on business hardly qualifies as 'having been there', so in the spirit of 'globalisation', perhaps we should be more conscious of the places we actually are? 

A Remotely Workable Solution

Remote working has increased massively, so opportunities for work socialising may be fewer and further between. The added value of longer, less rushed work schedules cannot be calculated until you try, and the additional cost of an extended trip can be accounted for against company savings from a higher proportion of remote workers. There is a great, as yet unsolved equation here for businesses to have more in-person employee interaction, all while we are further dispersed from each other. 

In short, air travel will still be a poster child for climate change, that is until we have full electric flights run via vetted renewable sources. In the meantime, yes, fly less, but fly more business-aware. If business trips are necessary, use the opportunity to foment stronger client links and, more importantly, stronger social cohesion within your own organisation. Provide the chance for experience within the trip, not just a relentless flight schedule. 

Perhaps, with an expansion of what we mean by 'travel for work', we may include social benefits that, from an ESG perspective, allow companies to foster social change and cohesion that leads to measurable gains in performance? This may reduce some of our climate guilt while making the actual most of our time away on the company dime.

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