When Eric Goldmann took his first business trip after 15 months of being grounded by the COVID-19 pandemic, the avid road warrior sensed he was getting back to his true self.
Goldmann, who traveled almost weekly in pre-pandemic times for his health-care technology sales job, was so pumped for his first in-person customer meeting in June 2021 that as soon as he landed in Jackson, Miss., “I just ran up to the Hertz counter, grabbed the keys, left the airport.”
“I just felt — I felt alive,” Goldmann said. It wasn’t until after his meeting he realized that in his thrill to get back to business travel, he’d forgotten to claim his checked bag.
More than two years after the pandemic disrupted business trips and corporate junkets, work travel is ramping up. Atlanta-based Delta Air Linessays it has seen strong business travel this fall, a season that typically brings more work trips and conferences after the summer break. Delta is based at Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport, the busiest airport in the United States based on passengers served annually.
But the rebound still has a way to go. Corporate sales increased after Labor Day and are 80% recovered, Delta said during an investor conference call on financial results this month.
On average, business travel managers estimate their domestic business travel is at about 63% and international business travel at about 50% of 2019 pre-pandemic levels, according to survey results released in October by the Global Business Travel Association. About 78% of travel managers expect their companies to handle more business trips next year.
The rise of hybrid work could completely alter the future of business travel, experts say, with more Zoom calls replacing face-to-face gatherings. Some who used to travel weekly are now traveling monthly.
The experience of travel has also changed with airport and airline staffing challenges translating into longer waits for services, more flight cancellations and fuller and less-frequent flights to some places.
Still, for many frequent business fliers like Goldmann, who said he thrives on new experiences and the adrenaline rush of making pitches to clients, the travel is part of their identity.
“When COVID came and I was sitting at my desk, I went crazy,” he said. “Literally crazy.”
Hundreds of companies — from Fortune 500 corporations to small businesses — locate their headquarters in Atlanta, in part for easy access to the airport. Hartsfield-Jackson offers flights to roughly 200 cities globally, with 80% of the U.S. population reachable within two hours by plane.
That makes Atlanta “the center of the air travel universe,” said Joe Leader, a frequent traveler who lives in Dunwoody, Ga., and runs the Airline Passenger Experience Association. “You have more options here than nearly anywhere else.”
For business travelers, the number of nonstop routes from Atlanta means far less need for connecting flights and the accompanying increased risk of weather or mechanical delays and baggage problems.
The peripatetic lifestyle has become part of the culture for a segment of the Atlanta community made up of traveling consultants, salespeople, executives and entrepreneurs. They tend to thrive off of variety, social interaction — and airline frequent flier status.
There are so many frequent fliers in Atlanta that Delta has nine Sky Clubs at Hartsfield-Jackson. United and American — Philadelphia’s largest carrier — also have their own airport lounges. When priority boarding for elite frequent fliers is announced at Atlanta airport gates, it’s not unusual for dozens of people to stand.
“The airport and the companies, the people that work here, have had this symbiotic relationship that has caused more routes to be developed by airlines, and more people to choose Atlanta as their base of operations,” Leader said.
But even as business travel has resumed, with the rise of remote work and Zoom calls, many road warriors are taking to the skies less often than they did before the pandemic. Or, they’re visiting clients Tuesdays through Thursdays instead of five days a week.
“Friday meetings are increasingly difficult to get,” said J.P. Morgan analyst Jamie Baker. “Most of our employees are coming back Thursday nights instead.”
Some geographic shifts during the pandemic also are changing business travel, altering how and where people live and work.
Delta President Glen Hauenstein said he thinks travel may never return to what it was in 2019, “but it will be bigger in different ways.”
“We have the migration of people out of some of the bigger cities in the U.S. to more rural areas or lower-tax areas that have to get back to the office many times a year,” Hauenstein said.
Among some who lived near the world’s busiest airport because their jobs required heavy travel, it could mean a migration away from Atlanta.
Leader, of the Airline Passenger Experience Association, said he has had colleagues who have relocated from Atlanta to other places like Lexington, Ky., during the pandemic, but now fly back to Atlanta as their business hub.
“They’re the ones that will be staying remote and traveling back to base,” Leader said. “Remote work changed the dynamic for road warriors.”
But the travel experience has also changed since pre-pandemic days.
Labor shortages mean longer lines for service, some closed concessions, and less-experienced workers trying to handle customers at the airport. Delta Sky Clubs are more crowded, since the airline extended elite status for business travelers who stopped flying, in hopes of maintaining them as loyal customers in the future.
Many hotels have cut back service, cleaning rooms less often.
The reduction of business travel during the pandemic paradoxically drove increased demand from leisure travelers paying for first class seats, according to Delta.
“All of these road warriors that have had their wings clipped for a couple of years, they’ve been taking more and more leisure trips, because traveling is what they love to do,” Leader said.
And for some, it’s hard to go back to coach.