Business Travel: What are you waiting for?

Despite increased check-in times, now is the best-ever time to travel on business, says Simon Calder
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The Independent Travel

"If you're not having breakfast with your client, who is?" asks a classy British Airways ad in which the question mark is created from a coffee and a croissant. It is part of BA's £5m campaign to woo business flyers back to the skies after 11 September. An old adversary of the airline believes that business travel is changing radically.

"At the end of the day, the deals get done," says Sir Freddie Laker. "But where normally you would have five meetings, it could be that you're only travelling for the final signing up and doing the rest on a video hook-up."

A third opinion comes from the fastest-growing sector of aviation, no-frills flying. Samantha Day of easyJet says: "We're carrying an increasing number of passengers, 50 per cent of whom are business travellers attracted by our high frequencies and reliability." Meanwhile, Ryanair has spectacularly bucked the trend for airlines to downsize by placing firm orders for 100 new Boeings.

In a sense, they are all correct. The opportunities for teleconferencing have never been wider, but anecdotal evidence suggests this medium amplifies, rather than replaces, personal contact. The one certainty is that, for the most tragic of reasons, this is the best-ever time to travel on business.

Suppliers of everything from a rental car to a Concorde ticket are prepared to negotiate on price. The range of hotel options has never been wider: you can choose from a basic, no-frills room at a basic no-frills price, or a top-of-the-range, exquisitely designed property with 21st-century communications. Technology is making life speedier through Heathrow, with trials of the JetStream iris recognition system allowing frequent travellers to get through immigration in barely the wink of an eye. For anyone not in the traditional airline or hotel business, these are exciting times. Forty new no-frills services are starting up in the first half of this year, with Bristol to Prague, Liverpool to Charleroi and Stansted to Bergerac among the implausible candidates for cut-price flights to Europe.

Not everything is perfect, of course. Britain's railways are not yet back where they were before the Hatfield disaster. When the newest UK airline, Bmibaby, takes over some of its parent company's routes from East Midlands, BMI customers will lose their hot breakfast and frequent flyer points.

The added security measures since 11 September have added stress to, and subtracted time from, the business day. Workers from South West Trains to Italy's air traffic controllers are flexing their industrial muscle, though the threatened strike by United Airlines engineers due to begin last night was called off at the 11th hour.

Roger Cato, Heathrow's managing director, claims his airport has "everything travellers need to get their trips off to a great start", though a jaundiced traveller might include continual building work and the world's toughest slot limitations among the less desirable attributes. Punctuality is still a problem. Yesterday, the Civil Aviation Authority cited Milan, Athens and Toronto as destinations with particularly poor timekeeping. And to add to National Air Travel Services' financial woes, the much-delayed Swanwick control centre has itself been delaying travellers since it opened last month.

Overall, though, the omens are good. Premium passengers on long-haul flights have never had it so comfy, and many of the services cut back last autumn are being restored in the summer schedules that begin next month. This week, the last of 34 Voyager trains starts running on the Virgin Trains cross-country network, helping to transform what was previously the poorest relation of the UK network.

Business aviation has prospered since 11 September – partly due to security concerns, but also due to time pressure. "Top executives who get paid hundreds of thousands of pounds can't waste the time now required for security checks," says Laker. "If they get delayed, it's a disaster for a business, so they're getting into executive jets." John Brutnell, of the private charter specialist Gold Air International, concurs, saying "February is set to be our busiest month of all time".

Not every finance director sees business aviation as the solution. Budget-conscious companies will be gleeful about British Airways's promise to introduce "lower fares, greater flexibility and more choice" on its European services. Whether you fly with this airline or its own no-frills creation and now rival, Go, it is hard to argue with BA's assertion that "It's better to be there".