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Part of a ZDNet Special Feature: Working from home: The future of business is remote

Southwest Airlines has excellent news for everyone (except Bill Gates)

When an airline goes up against one of tech's most famous figures, whose side are you on?

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Are they coming back?

Screenshot by ZDNet

When a company wants to believe something, it does everything in its power to make it happen.

One of those powers is, of course, hype.

You tell people something is coming, it's close, it's-so-right-there-you-can-smell-it.

Why, many companies are using the onset of March to announce that, yes, this is the month when everyone will go back to the office.

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And guess what airlines are saying? Yes, that business travel is back, well, is kind of back, well, will be back, well, is showing concrete signs of backness.

I was moved to paroxysms of excitement, therefore, when Southwest Airlines offered a veritably bullish expression of business travel's imminence.

Speaking to Routes Americas, Southwest's vice-president of business, Dave Harvey teased "sexy new cities." Where are they? Well, they're somewhere out there. Truly.

But here's the big one. He said: "The business passengers are coming back." Finally. At last. It took so long.

Oh, I don't know why I still feel a touch skeptical. Perhaps it's because I've been getting a lot of emails from Southwest about astonishing $59 flights available to many cities, sexy and non-sexy alike.

Does this mean that, perhaps, business passengers haven't quite come back all the way?

Might not Bill Gates have been unsexily correct when he predicted that, after the pandemic, business travel would sink to less than 50 percent of previous levels?

Harvey isn't having it.

Gates, he said, is "dead wrong." Many businesspeople will, he insisted, travel to restore company culture and specific operations.

He confessed that people have rather liked working remotely. He insisted, though: "The road warrior might not travel as much, but there is this new swathe of business traveler who will more than make up for that."

There's a new swathe? "Is it a sexy new swathe?" I hear you wonder.

Harvey explained: "In operations such as recruitment and training, businesses haven't found a good way to do that in the virtual space."

This may be true -- or it may not -- but are there enough businesspeople who didn't travel so much before who'll now need to increase their frequent flyer status?

You can choose to side with Gates. Or you can be cheered by Zoom announcing disappointing financial results.

What's clear, though, is that the patterns of business have changed and airlines aren't entirely sure how to address them.

Why, as the Points Guy reported, United Airlines just removed 17 domestic routes from its offering.

The airline's statement offered a clue to a vital component of the Southwest vs Gates battle. It said: "United makes regular adjustments to its schedule in response to market demand and staffing resources to ensure we can best serve our customers."

During the pandemic, airlines made large efforts to shed staff. Any sort of rapid return of business travel might be thoroughly thwarted by a lack of pilots and flight attendants.

But let's try and think positive. Let's cut to one of Harvey's sexy cities.

Speaking to the Las Vegas Review-Journal, he foresaw enormous conference activity from, well, March onwards. Yes, like a CES with more than seven people there.

So is Southwest right? Will businesspeople flock back to travel as they (may) flock back to their offices?

Or might Mystic Bill still have the last high-pitched chuckle?

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