Business Travel: Economy flights are just the ticket

The jet-setting executive might be adjusting to fewer frills but new technology is bringing more choice than ever
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The Independent Online
HAVING FOUND the best-value flight, you click "accept". Thousands of miles away a couple of computers concur to process your booking and debit your credit card.

As you travel at 100mph on the Heathrow Express, you recall the bad old days. When your travel agent had to send out tickets and when, on the haul out to the airport you were obliged to choose between the devilish M4 and the deep blue and dismal Piccadilly Line.

At Britain's busiest airport, feeding your frequent flyer card into the automatic check-in machine completes the formalities, and no passport check impedes the stroll to the gate.

The flight arrives in Frankfurt on time, another card secures you a room on the hotel's executive floor, and you are so pleased with yourself that you tip the bellgirl an extra couple of Euros.

With the exception of the last step - cash Euros are still three years away - this is an entirely feasible journey. The business traveller has never been so spoiled for choice, in travel, accommodation and communications. But the rapid expansion of options has caused many companies to reassess their travel policies.

Sound economic health in the past few years pushed up prices for high- end executive travel, while the beginnings of a downturn mean that more and more businesses are seeking cost-savings among the growing range of no-frills travel and accommodation options.

Caught in the middle is the business travel agent, battling to demonstrate his or her ability to add real value in a world in which the old certainties no longer apply.

Read the next sentence carefully. Over the past decade, long-haul business class air fares have risen steadily, while economy fares have fallen in both real and absolute terms.

In other words, the price gap has widened drastically. In 1988 the lowest business class return flight on a US or UK airline from London to New York was around pounds 1,500, about five times the cheapest economy deal. Today you would struggle to find anything below pounds 2,000 in the business cabin (British Airways' official Club World fare is pounds 3,200), while fares below pounds 200 are widely available in economy outside peak times.

Standards in both classes have been greatly enhanced. When BA's Bob Ayling unveiled the airline's new "World Traveller" economy product earlier this month, he took pains to point out the added value for business travellers. An unrestricted economy ticket on that benchmark LHR-JFK route costs barely a quarter of the premium product.

If Richard Branson's call at the weekend for an "open skies" accord between Britain and the US is heeded, fares in all classes could fall, but they are only one part of the equation.

As business travellers focus more closely on the overall journey experience, airlines are busily promoting the benefits of their new commercial romances. The Star Alliance (whose partners include United, Lufthansa and SAS) is ahead of the field, particularly since BA's chosen clique, oneworld, is still waiting for BA's relationship with American Airlines, on its precarious journey through competition legislation, to be consummated.

Airlines are keen to link up for the network benefits (an apparent increase in destinations with no actual additional flights) and economies of scale, but promote their tie-ups as enhancing "seamless" travel.

In Europe, the map of the aviation world has changed even more dramatically. All the new no-frills airlines report strong business traffic.

Of the new routes from Liverpool announced recently by easyJet, those to Belfast and Geneva are likely to attract business travellers for whom the most important frills are safe, punctual flights at convenient times.

"Full-service" airlines are fighting back, with carriers like British Midland, KLM UK and Sabena offering better-value fares, new destinations and higher frequencies.

Europe's airlines are also feeling the pinch from rail operators. Six weeks ago, the new high-speed link between Berlin and Hanover effect moved the new German capital closer to the main business centres, with Frankfurt now under four hours from Berlin. Ironically, trains are actually coming to the aid of aviation, with new airport links established this autumn in both Copenhagen and Oslo.

The next great boon for travellers is an intangible one: the use of the Euro for electronic transactions, starting on New Year's Day.

A common currency will greatly ease comparisons across Europe, which could help keep hotel rates in check. With strong demand keeping yields for hoteliers high, the business traveller is expecting much greater value - particularly in terms of in-room technology to make trips more productive.

According to American Express, two-thirds of European purchasing managers believe the Euro will enable them to consolidate travel spending with a single agent.

As Scott Payton explains, below, the jury is still out on the benefits of the world wide web for world wanderers. But it's good to have the choice.