Back from the future

The pace of change for business travellers is quickening.
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You tap your pocket, and feel in response the reassuring rattle of a few euros: no problem, then, with parking the electric car. You stroke some keys on your electronic organiser, and the start of your itinerary takes focus. "March 4, 2000: Virgin Cross-Country Express from Oxford to Birmingham International. Lufthansa flight from Birmingham to Newcastle." There follow a stream of digits that make perfect sense to you: your Virgin Freeway card number, reminding you that the 60-mile train trip gets you that bit closer to that free balloon trip (not piloted by Richard Branson); the six-digit code that entitles you to board the flight to Newcastle, and another code that reveals your application for an Australian business visa has been successful; and the good news that this UK domestic flight on the German national carrier will trigger your upgrade to the next level on the United Airlines frequent-flyer programme.

Perhaps the most surprising thing about the future of business travel is - with the exception of the thorny question of the single European currency - that the scenarios mentioned either exist already or are highly likely to be in place within three years.

Britain's rail network, desperately run-down after decades of under-investment and years of uncertainty over privatisation, is now entirely in private hands. Some of the new operators, notably Virgin (responsible for Cross Country and West Coast InterCity services), and GNER (the East Coast route between Scotland and London), are focusing on the needs of the business traveller. As Cathy Packe describes below, frequent-traveller schemes are proven to work wonders for customer loyalty among airlines, and links with terrestrial transport have already been forged with the likes of BA's Air Miles scheme.

Global partnership is the key to growth of the the airlines' frequent- flyer schemes, which is why a short hop on Lufthansa can earn long-haul rewards on an American carrier. You won't, by the way, need to show a visa to get into Australia later that month, nor a ticket to board the Newcastle plane later that day - this year Australia is pioneering paperless visas, and by 2000 the German airline will be among the majority of carriers using ticketless travel.

Hang on, though, what is Lufthansa doing flying between Birmingham and Newcastle anyway? Simply exercising its rights under the EU's principle of cabotage, that's what. For the past few months, British business travellers have been able to enjoy the German airline's jet service between the two British cities, just as flyers between Prestwick and Stansted travel on an Irish airline. Britain is, as usual, ahead of the aviation liberalisation pack. But four weeks from today, any European airline will, in theory, be able to fly on any intra-EU route it chooses.

Don't get too excited, though, about this glimpse of the future. Before you start checking the schedules for the Alitalia Glasgow-to-Heathrow shuttle, or the BA link between Barcelona and Bologna, bear in mind that such developments are, as always, dependent on slots. By 2000, the Heathrow Terminal Five enquiry will barely have finished. Europe's busiest airport will still be at full capacity, leaving little room for new arrivals. True, the players at Heathrow could look very different three years from now - but probably because of the planned American Airlines/British Airways alliance.

By 2000, the tie-up between these two aviation giants is likely to have gone through - in some form. The big question is the scale of the pay- off that the partners are obliged to make to other airlines, in order to satisfy competition rules on both sides of the Atlantic. AA/BA will not be allowed to acquire dominance on routes, and business travellers are likely to be the beneficiaries.

If AA/BA wants to operate a near-hourly shuttle service between Heathrow and New York's JFK, then the alliance will have to surrender slots to other carriers to ensure proper competition. Continental (presently restricted to Gatwick, Birmingham and Manchester), United and Virgin are all likely to benefit from increased access to the "world's favourite" airport. The transatlantic traveller can expect greater competition and enhanced value.

The "losers" of this arrangement are likely to be those in places as diverse as Inverness and Istanbul. Already there are signs that British Airways is freeing up slots at Heathrow by shifting less lucrative traffic to Sussex. In a fortnight, all BA's Latin American services are moving to the airline's hub at Gatwick, and by the time the new summer schedules take effect on Easter Sunday, BA (and its franchise partners) will offer a wider range of destinations from Gatwick than from Heathrow. The trend is likely to continue, with more marginal routes going south to allow for strengthening core services - and giving away slots to the opposition.

With a bit of luck, the short-haul traveller in 2000 could be able to ignore Heathrow (even with its new fast link with Paddington) altogether. The long-promised through-trains linking UK provincial cities with Brussels and Paris are likely to begin in June this year, with night services deeper into Europe following later. These will tap into a high-speed Continental rail network that will transform business travel between city pairs under 500 miles apart.

By December this year, Brussels will be only 85 minutes from Paris. The business traveller who has come to appreciate the city-centre service offered by Eurostar will soon be able to avoid airport queues and tedious transfers for many European journeys.

The search for a room fit for the new millennium could be less revolutionary, however. The big development for guests at business hotels over the past five years has been a simple one: you pay more. Not only have "rack rates" (the official tariff) risen, but the proportion of business travellers obliged to pay them has climbed too.

Personal experience and anecdotal evidence from other travellers suggests that quality has not increased at the same pace. Much more often than I would expect at the fag-end of the 20th century, I have to perform considerable electronic surgery on the hotel telephone in order to connect my computer with base. Hotels which invest the present harvest of high earnings in upgrading their product are likely to be those that maximise business in the future.

Gazing at the world in 2000 once more, it is surprising at how little some things have changed, The aircraft that remains the backbone of most long-haul fleets, the 747, is little changed from the Boeing that entered service in the 1960s.

Concorde still zaps back and forth across the Atlantic a couple of times a day, but she is looking increasingly geriatric - with no immediate sign of a supersonic successor. In contrast, telecommunications fly around the globe at the speed of light, but predictions that technology will do away with the need to travel on business are still far from fulfilment.

High-speed ISDN links, allowing low-cost video-conferencing, have become much more widespread among UK business. But like the spread of the telephone a century ago, new technology seems to stimulate additional travel rather than reduce it.

And how might all this travel be bought? The Internet has yet to take a grip, not least because experiences of booking on the World Wide Web in the late Nineties have not proved entirely satisfactory. The big business travel agencies have built upon their buying power and international links to extend their grip on the market. At the other end of the market scale, small niche agents who know their customers' requirements intimately are thriving too. The toughest question about the future of business travel is straightforward: what currency will we use?