Life in the fast track

Mike Toynbee

Editor of Executive Travel

Today's well-travelled executives have probably never had it so good. Business class cabins which equate to first class of a few years ago, comfortable airport lounges, Fast Track processing, executive floors in hotels, comprehensive business centres, frequent flyer schemes and guest loyalty programmes - all designed to make life on the move easier and less of a hardship.

While no one is complaining, whether the frequent traveller actually wants all this cossetting is open to debate. Beady-eyed company accountants are certainly more interested in keeping corporate travel budgets in check than having staff enjoying a chauffeur-driven limo to the airport or a complimentary welcome cocktail when they check into a hotel.

During the heady 1980s, there was virtually no rein on travel spending, with business booming for airlines and hotels alike. All that changed overnight with the Gulf War. For the first time in living memory, business travel came to a virtual standstill. The high-spending Japanese were grounded by decree, the Americans were nervous about travelling even within the United States, let alone anywhere near the Middle East (which included most of Europe), and the rest of us were advised not to travel unless it was absolutely essential. For a couple of weeks, there were jumbo jets flying with just a handful of passengers and empty hotel rooms everywhere. The outlook, to put it mildly, looked bleak. Although it proved to be only a brief interruption, it had a long-term effect on the business travel market. Companies, already feeling the pinch from the ever deepening recession, used the Gulf War as an excuse to review their entire travel programmes: who was travelling where, how much was it costing and was it actually necessary. Executives found themselves making fewer trips, were downgraded from business to economy and were being accommodated in cheaper hotels. It meant lean times for airlines and hotels, some of which failed to weather the financial storm.

But with a general economic recovery, all that has changed in the past year, with business back to pre-Gulf War levels. Club class cabins are once again full, especially on routes to Asia. However, there is now much greater emphasis on value, with corporate travel planners and travellers demanding more for their money. Airlines have responded by upgrading service in all classes, but particularly in business. With comfort still the main priority for passengers on long-haul flights, extra legroom, new seats with lumbar support, extra recline and leg rests are being installed by a number of carriers, including Air New Zealand, American Airlines, British Airways, Canadian International, South African Airways and TWA. British Airways has gone a step further, with a totally redesigned first-class cabin in response to customer research. This highlighted the need for privacy, the ability to sleep and to be in control - typically, first-class passengers are used to making decisions and being in charge of their lives. The result was a reduction in the number of seats on a 747 from 18 to 14, shielded by individual screens to provide maximum privacy and converting to a horizontal, six foot six inch bed. Furthermore, passengers can eat what they want, when they want. Japanese airline ANA has extended the amount of legroom in first class to a massive 83 inches, while the norm in business class on transatlantic routes is now 50 inches with Virgin Atlantic offering up to 60 inches in its Upper Class cabin.

The other major development is the installation of in-flight phones and faxes, which more and more airlines are now providing on both long and short-haul routes. In most cases, these are for outgoing communications only, but United, for example, is one airline on which it is possible to receive incoming calls as well - something about which many passengers are apprehensive.

Not everyone welcomes the hi-tech approach on board and there is evidence that fewer travellers are now working in-flight, preferring instead to use the time to relax, watch the video and catch up on lost sleep.

On the ground, executive lounges at airports have been significantly expanded and improved. Most now offer work space, photocopying and fax facilities. Air Canada even has computers available for its lounge users, although a recent survey among 600 European business travellers suggests that the hard working image of the executive on the move is something of a myth.

The major priority for most business customers is unquestionably hassle-free travel. Traditional airport bottlenecks - check-in desks, security and immigration checks and boarding - are all areas which are being addressed. Fast Track lanes for business class passengers are available at London's two principal gateways. And to speed up the embarkation process, Lufthansa now seats passengers on some routes by window, centre and aisle seats rather than by row. Electronic ticketing, which is now widely available in the US and has recently arrived in Europe, is also helping to streamline the passage through airports for travellers, eliminating a number of time-consuming procedures.

The requirement for faster processing extends to the car rental companies, which have also simplified their systems by reducing the paperwork for regular hirers, thus ensuring a faster getaway from the airport.

In hotels, there is an increasing demand for executive-style facilities: priority check-in and express check-out, rooms with adequate work space, a desk with a phone, easy access to power and modem outlets and good lighting. Most of the major groups have responded with the hotel-within-a-hotel concept of executive club floors with their own check-in desk and concierge, a private lounge where breakfast, refreshments and cocktails in the evening are served, and often a small, boardroom-style meeting room. In-room faxes are becoming a standard feature or are available on request. Marriott is currently introducing its Room that Works, developed in conjunction with AT&T; and Steelcase Inc, featuring a large console table with two power outlets and a modem jack, a mobile writing desk and moveable task light and an adjustable, ergonomically designed chair. By the end of this year, the company aims to have a minimum of 20 per cent of its full service rooms worldwide furnished in this way. Other groups, including Westin and Holiday Inn, have adopted a similar approach.

Ironically, despite all the cossetting, what most frequent travellers look forward to most is getting home to their own bed.

Mike Toynbee is Editor of Executive Travel, a monthly magazine aimed at the frequent corporate traveller. If you travel regularly, you may qualify for a free subscription. For details contact Executive Travel, Church Street, Dunstable LU5 4HB. Tel: 01582 695098; fax: 01582 695095; e-mail: