FOUR THOUGHTS ABOUT THE FUTURE
By Joe Brancatelli
May 15, 2013 --Depending on your generational bias, you probably expected the future of business travel to look like The Jetsons or Futurama, animated TV shows that specialized in zippy modes of transit. If you're more high-minded, you hoped that we'd be passing through ethereal spaces designed by visionaries like Eero Saarinen.
Yeah, well, get over it. Business travel was never going to be like that. You realize it every time you draw a middle seat in coach on a sold-out flight or suffer through the security kabuki at an airport checkpoint. Life on the road is no ride in George Jetson's aerocar and, in case you hadn't noticed, Saarinen's iconic TWA Flight Center is closed and TWA itself is long gone. We even fly more slowly since Concorde was retired a decade ago.
Yet even if the reference is from a 64-year-old musical, I resolutely remain a cockeyed optimist when it comes to business travel. I do think things will get better on the road. That's partially because the cynic in me thinks things couldn't really get worse. Mostly, though, it's because I think we can already see the improvement in many key areas of our daily business-travel lives.
Here are four specific scenarios where the future of business travel will be better, faster, happier and less burdensome.Airport security will be less intrusive
Created in the wake of the 9/11 terrorist attacks to federalize airport checkpoints, the TSA is nearly impossible to love. By definition, its job is intrusive, time-consuming and, on a meta level, an unsettling reminder that bad guys want to kill us when we travel. Of course, the TSA doesn't help its own cause by being insufferably arrogant and unable to accept limits on its mandate.
Still, the future of airport security will be faster, less intrusive and, by the way, more in tune with the law that created the TSA in the first place. The agency's PreCheck program is now available in 40 airports nationwide and it permits some frequent fliers to leave their shoes, belts and outerwear on and to keep laptops and toiletries in their carry-on bags. The TSA this month expanded PreCheck to international flights and now notifies fliers in advance when they can use PreCheck. The TSA has even learned to play nice with other federal agencies; members of the Customs and Border Protection's Global Entry program can participate in PreCheck, too. And it is clear that the TSA is mulling a massive expansion of PreCheck since it's toying with the notion of farming out required background checks to private, third-party operators.The government will curb deceptive 'unbundled' fares
After decades of losses created by their own ineptness, many U.S. airlines have decided that unbundling fares—the term of art invented to explain why they now charge extra for everything from checked bags to seat assignments—is the ticket to sustained profit. The latest example: struggling Frontier Airlines announced earlier this month that it would "enhance services for customers" by charging for carry-on bags and in-flight beverages.
Whether unbundled pricing is economically wise awaits the judgment of the U.S. marketplace, but its future is fraught with regulatory peril. Ryanair of Europe is a master of the a la carte fare. Among its creative extra fees: an administrative charge for using Ryanair.com to buy a ticket and an additional levy for using a credit card to pay for the ticket. But it constantly runs afoul of European regulators. A similar clash between U.S. carriers and the Department of Transportation is inevitable because airlines invariably try to hide their ups and extras and passengers despise being nickel and dimed. The Department of Transportation whiffed on its first attempt even to define the intrinsic components of an airfare, but it'll have no choice but to revisit the topic in the coming years. Ryanair has proven how many "extras" there can be—and the unscrupulous ends to which airlines will go to hide them from infuriated fliers.Hotels will realize it's not just 'heads on beds'
Convinced that instantaneous video communication would destroy traditional business travel, large hotel chains spent decades trying to create and rent "public videoconferencing rooms." It sounds ludicrous now that we all have cheap video links via our smartphones and laptops, of course, but hotels really did think there would be a market for global networks of conference rooms equipped with massive (and massively expensive) video and audio gear.
What they didn't understand was that the future of renting public space would be simpler and more nuanced. We can travel with our own whiz-bang tech tools, but we need a place to plop down and use them. As fewer and fewer of us are tied to an office, (Yahoo notwithstanding), just-in-time work space will be the hot commodity. Hotels initially rushed to remake lobbies to adopt a coffeehouse vibe, but now they understand conference rooms need a makeover, too. Marriott and Westin have already made flashy announcements about their vision of the future of small-space, as-needed rentals. As an industry, however, the "heads on beds" mentality will have to change more dramatically. Hotels won't just be in the transient lodging business, but also the transient office-space business.We'll eat even better on the fly
One of the few places where life on the road has notably improved in recent years is at the airport. Once populated by dark, dank bars and dreary, dreadful dining options, airports now sparkle with on-the-fly outposts of local microbreweries and bespoke wine bars. Big-name chefs no longer ignore the potential of having a place at the airport to call their own.
The upmarket airport dining trend will surely continue in the future. Why? A survey conducted for National Car Rental says 44 percent of business travelers reward themselves by sampling the local cuisine. And a report from an expense-management firm called Certify reveals that a surprisingly small amount of our T&E spending is at fast-food or fast-casual chains.
Even airlines now recognize the advantage of better airport dining. JetBlue Airways got its groove back when it opened T5 at New York/Kennedy and stocked it with two dozen hip dining outlets. Delta Air Lines recently imitated the concept (and used the same food and beverage operator) when it remade the former Northwest hub at Minneapolis-St. Paul and took over the old US Airways terminal at New York's LaGuardia Airport.
Of course, the future rarely turns out as well as us cockeyed optimists hope. For as long as I'm sitting in Seat 2B, I expect we'll have to deal with checked luggage that an airline inadvertently sent to Dulles Airport in Washington (IAD) instead of Intercontinental in Houston (IAH). And I just know that the person in Seat 2A won't stop singing Whitney Houston songs.