United Airlines CEO made a disturbing prediction about Zoom

Scott Kirby says business travel isn't dead. Because Zoom will cost companies business.
Written by Chris Matyszczyk, Contributing Writer

Will it still be the best way to secure a contract?

Screenshot by ZDNet

There's a quaint notion that airlines compete against each other.

It isn't all that true. When four big airlines own more than 80% of all the seats in the US, what you might call competition is, to them, but a relatively low-stakes Friday night poker game.

The major airlines have, though, seen the real enemy.

No, it isn't trains or automobiles. It's Zoom.

The video conferencing software that's turned into a verb has become, for some, one of the only ways they can stay sane and do business. Even if too many Zoom calls can actually drive you insane and never want to do business again.

Airlines clearly worry that many business people are doing just fine by contacting clients and partners via Zoom. This is painful, as airlines make vast barrels full of profit from their cavalier, status-conscious business class travelers. Or, rather, they used to.

So it was that just a few weeks ago, American Airlines CEO Doug Parker offered that Zoom was so awful that it would actually increase pre-pandemic volumes of business travel. 

For Parker, Zoom meetings are plain awful.

United Airlines CEO Scott Kirby, however, believes Zoom will cost companies business. On Thursday, during the airline's third-quarter earnings call, he declared that business travel will return to pre-pandemic levels by 2024.

He suggested there may be fewer businesspeople wafting about the world to magnificent conferences and more remote workers flying into their head offices for important meetings.

He also said he has a little mantra that he's been repeating for some time: "I've been fond of saying the first time someone loses a sale to a competitor who showed up in person is the last time they try to make a sales call on Zoom."

I can hear you muttering that flight delays and cancellations have cost you clients when you've wanted to fly United and see them in person.

But let's examine Kirby's logic (even) more deeply.

Salespeople all believe there's a certain magic to securing a sale. They don't always agree on what that magic is.

Some might say that it is, indeed, the personal touch. Others, though, might lean toward their ability to incite trust in a client, rather than their ability to take the client out for lobster thermidor, pumpkin pavlova, and a shedful of Drambuies.

Is it possible to incite trust over Zoom? Some salespeople tell me it is. Then again, they work in tech so seeing humans may not always be at the top of the joy list.

I can't help feeling, however, that something more human will begin to impress itself.

Many already complain about Zoom fatigue. When you're forced to attend one Zoom meeting after another, your affection for the service -- and for your very job -- can drift toward plucking at your eyebrows till they bleed.

When a widely available vaccine finally arrives, business trips won't merely serve to create more personal contact with clients and partners. They'll be rewards for employees who spent so many hours of their lives stuck on Zoom.

Of course, it's easy for Kirby to make his prediction. The truth is that no one knows what the world might look like in even a few weeks, let alone in a year or two.

For now, however, his airline has to focus on leisure travelers, customers who haven't always been treated with assiduous care by many airlines.

Perhaps if airlines can make leisure travel somehow more pleasurable -- not blocking middle seats isn't a positive, United -- that may increase people's enthusiasm for business trips.

Somehow, though, Kirby thinks only the threat of companies losing money will do it. That's a pity.

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