May 20, 2024

US restart: Demand tempered by confusion and caution

The long-awaited reopening of transatlantic travel this week has been welcomed by the business travel industry but some experts say demand is being thwarted by confusion and caution.

Julia Lo Bue-Said, CEO at Advantage Travel Partnership, said there is significant pent-up demand for corporate travel to the US, with the London to New York route being the most important, but said travel remains “incredibly complicated”.

“Testing still remains confusing. For example, it’s not widely known that the lateral flow test required for entry into the US has to be videoed,” she said.

“And domestic Covid protocols, once in the US, differ from state to state. The need for a human travel agent to help both business and leisure travellers navigate their way through the booking process is more important than ever. 

“We will continue to collaborate closely with all of our partners, our members, trade bodies and the Government to support the travel industry at this vital time of recovery.”

Sarah Wilson, CEO of Advantage member Ace Travel Management, said the TMC has seen an influx of bookings to the US but believes there is still a lack of confidence from UK travellers, both for business and leisure.

“The increasing rates of Covid are a cause for concern in terms of countries doing a sudden u-turn and shutting their borders again to UK travellers. That and the lack of confidence in the Government to make timely and appropriate decisions I fear will halt travellers.

“There will be an element of ‘let some others try it first’ before we see any normal activity return. A bit pessimistic, perhaps, but we’ve had so many false hopes over the past 20 months.”

Mel Phaure, Director Blue Cube Travel, said it has seen a surge in bookings but testing requirements mean travellers are requiring extra assistance from their TMC.

“Travellers have become accustomed to PCR and Antigen tests over the last few months and although we believe that system to be flawed and we know our travellers are frustrated by it, currently if that’s what has to be done to travel they are willing to do so,” she said.

“The appetite to travel for business is most definitely still there and we are busier than we had expected to be at this stage. Our reservations team are flat out supporting our travellers in the booking and testing requirements relevant to their destinations.”

Anthony Jeynes, Director of Agent Product Support TAG, said the opening of US/transatlantic routes equates to about 50% of its corporate UK business and volumes have rebounded to about 65% of 2019 levels.

Nicola Cox, Director MIDAS Travel, also reports a jump in bookings.

“Although part of the reason for the uplift in enquiries is a direct result of US borders reopening, i.e., requests for trips to the US, we have also noticed a wider impact as the announcement boosted confidence as a whole across the industry.

“Each step we take towards travel becoming simpler and with less ‘unknowns’ around rules, testing, paperwork and quarantining, then traveller and booker confidence will continue to improve.”

James Beagrie, Managing Director Meon Valley Travel Group, said it was going to take more time for business travel to the US to recover, with many clients having let their ESTAs expire during the Covid shutdown. He also warned of possible flight changes.

“North American partners are reporting they have 80% load factors on domestic aircraft and British Airways say they’re going to be up to 89% capacity on transatlantic routes by Christmas 2021. This race for market share by BA doesn’t necessarily mean that ticket prices are going to be any cheaper but it is fuelling competition and does mean there should be welcome and sufficient capacity,” said Beagrie.

“We are seeing plenty of choice and availability popping up although corporates are having to be forewarned that flight changes will be a new reality of life.

“British Airways is offering flexibility on flight changes which remains a plus point although we don’t expect this to last past Christmas.

“It’s going to take us six years to recover so this traffic is a welcome shot in the arm but it’s far from sufficient to mean that we are out of the woods yet!”

Jason Oshiokpekhai, Managing Director of Global Travel Collection UK, said the business travel industry has been revived but must not be complacent.

“Operating globally on fragmented travel structures is not viable for long-term recovery. This is an opportunity for the UK and US Governments to pioneer a safe and seamless travel blueprint that can be easily adopted worldwide for a united approach to international travel,” he said.

Andrew Crawley, Chief Commercial Officer American Express Global Business Travel (GBT), said transatlantic bookings have already increased by more than 70% since the Biden administration announced the restart date back in September.

“This is testament to the value of these routes and the vital role business travel plays as a connector of commerce and culture. The increase in activity, coupled with the growth of international business travel in other regions, underscores what the data has shown us throughout the pandemic: where it’s permitted, people will travel.”