American Airlines just made a startling admission about the future

Of all the airline CEOs, Doug Parker used to be most bullish about the return of business travel. Now, not so much.
Written by Chris Matyszczyk, Contributing Writer on

Business travel isn't Zooming?

Screenshot by ZDNet

Being right is hard.

You think you know the world and how it works, and then along comes something few have ever experienced and the whole world order shifts.

That's very much what happened when the COVID-19 pandemic struck, and so many people were stuck. At home, that is.

All those two years ago, some airline CEOs scoffed at the sudden entry of Zoom -- and subsequently Microsoft Teams -- into everyday business life.

No one's scoffing was more pronounced than that of American Airlines CEO Doug Parker.

Why, in September of last year, he was pouring a trashcan full of scorn onto Zoom. A meeting with his employees was reported like this: "He [Parker] even sees Zoom meetings, which he thinks are awful, adding to business travel demand rather than detracting from it."

You may or may not think Zoom meetings are awful. You have, though, learned to live with them. Some employees have even become enthusiastic about them -- or, at least, more enthusiastic about Zoom than Teams.

Has there, though, been any sign that the alleged awfulness of Zoom meetings has enhanced business travel? Or has it been that CFOs have noticed just how productive videoconferencing has become? So much so that they adore counting the savings on, well, business travel?

And has it also been the case that at least some employees have been glad that they're not forced to be on the road quite as much as they used to be?

It seems that Parker may have noticed that his prediction hasn't come to pass. After all, not one airline is currently claiming that its business travel revenue has suddenly, um, zoomed back to pre-pandemic levels.

Moreover, at the recent Skift Aviation Forum, Parker offered a more muted view of Zoom. And, indeed, Teams.

He mused: "I'm bullish on business travel. Zoom or Teams aren't going away, they're huge advancements, and we're going to coexist."

It's quite a descent from "awful" to "huge advancement." It's quite an acknowledgement that videoconferencing has made enormous progress in being a relatively efficient way of doing business.

Parker, indeed, conceded that one broken pattern lies in what used to be a very regular one-day business trip.

He said, "We're seeing new patterns. We could identify business travel on the travel pattern, but that's not the case anymore. It's good; it flattens out the peaks and allows for more types of travel."

It surely does, just as videoconferencing has allowed for more types of hybrid work/vacation behavior. Or, perhaps more accurately, digital nomad-type behavior.

You can go to more places, but you don't stop working.

Perhaps it was natural for airline CEOs to dismiss the potential incursion of Zoom and Teams. Few believed Covid would last this long or that technology would develop so quickly to enable new ways of working.

But the world has changed. Just as businesses are adjusting their ways of life -- and finding it very difficult to persuade employees to return to the office -- so airlines are adapting to a new world, too.

The airline employees who are surely finding it most difficult right now are the gate agents and flight attendants who are having to deal with unreasonable, maddeningly asinine, and malevolent customers who think no rule applies to them.

Rarely are these business customers, one suspects. (One hopes.)

But the old times may not return for years, if ever. Airlines must find entirely new ways to attract customers -- including business customers.

It's an adjustment some will make better than others.

Actually, speaking of adjustments, Parker just announced that he's retiring. Perhaps he'd like to enjoy a little more leisure travel and fewer Zoom calls.

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