Speaking during a fourth quarter earnings call last Thursday, outgoing American Airlines CEO Doug Parker linked the incidence of masks to the stagnation of business travel. Parker sees business travel returning when masks are no longer compulsory. But is he right?
American Airlines CEO Blames Masks For Slow Return Of Business Travel
We need business travel to get back to where it was. It wants to…every time it starts to look like the world’s going to get back to normal, business travel starts ticking up and it starts ticking up pretty quickly – as it did in July, as it started to do in November.
What happens though is anything that gets people to where we all have to wear a mask again, and for companies that have not yet brought people back to work, they delay that. It’s been delayed yet again for a lot of companies around the United States. It’ll come back, and when it does business return, and [we’ll be profitable].
While he states that masks are an impediment to return of business travel, he really links masks to normalcy itself, implying that “anything” (such as new variants or reactive public policy) that leads to masking impedes business travel.
It was just last month that Parker had to walk back comments before Congress suggesting that the federal mask mandate was not necessary due to superior air filtration systems on airplanes.
But is Parker even correct? Like View From The Wing, I’m not interested in debating masks here…we’ve certainly done that enough and I realize that people come to very different conclusions about them.
I’m actually not sure, though, that Parker is correct. I think those who dislike or downplay the need for masks are already traveling again while those who are afraid of COVID-19 and thus more likely to embrace masks may not be traveling yet or do not plan to travel at all. Thus, the lifting of the mask mandate will not change the behavior of so many people.
Perhaps I’m a bit too pessimistic, but while nothing substitutes for the in-person experience, I don’t expect a sudden surge in business travel. Certainly, rolling back the mask mandate will represent improved COVID-19 conditions in the USA and that will encourage more offices to re-open and some business travel to resume. But many companies I work with at Award Expert 1.) have already resumed travel but are 2.) limiting it much further than prior to the pandemic for 3.) financial reasons more than health reasons.
In my case, I’ll wear masks (surgical or N95) in places where I am asked (including not only airplanes, but most indoor settings in California and annoyingly even in my gym) but look forward to the day when they are no longer required. In any case, it will not change my travel patterns.
I think Parker is correct to the degree in which the ongoing federal mask mandate represents a continuing pandemic. However, I’m not convinced that masks (or even new variants) as time goes on are going to make or break business travel. Rather, it will be how companies and individuals seek to allocate resources in a post-pandemic world with all sorts of new barriers to travel when telephone, email, and video conferencing never replaces in-person meetings but at least approximates it.