My first post-lockdown flight was a 90-minute Southwest non-stop from Chicago to Nashville. It wasn’t bad, but not as casually easy as my last pre-coronavirus flight in February. We talk about that experience as well as Hertz’s new cleaning program, my latest pair of Bose noise-cancelling headphones, and then wonder when business travel will return. All this and more at the direct link to the podcast file or listening to it right here by clicking on the arrow below.
Here is the transcript of TravelCommons podcast #165:
- Intro music — Warmth by Makkina
- Coming to you from the TravelCommons studio in Chicago, Illinois after a couple of runs back down to Nashville for family stuff — one in the air and the other on the ground. And with COVID cases spiking in vacation spots like California and south Florida, it seems like that’s the market segment — folks traveling to see friends and family — that the airline and hotel companies are banking on. And that’s most of what I saw when flying back from Nashville a few Thursdays ago — lots of families with kids, groups of people meeting up on the other side of security for maybe some 4 day-weekend trips? The tip-off for me on the business vs. leisure traveler mix was the TSA lines — solid lines for regular TSA, while I pretty much walked straight through PreCheck. Another tip-off used to be mid-day lines at the bars, but with most of the airport restaurants closed up, that’s not a valid indicator right now.
- Traveling right now requires a bit of nimbleness. On my first post-lockdown trip in May, the workout room at the Spring Hill Hampton Inn was open and I used it every day. Back down in June, there was a piece of paper taped to the door — “Closed by order of the Health Department”. The front desk agent told me it was a couple of days old — which explained all the banging in the room above me; somebody must’ve been doing their HIIT workout in their room. I didn’t know if I should be annoyed or impressed at how long they went at it. So for this last trip, I called the hotel the night before I left, before I packed my gym clothes vs. a yoga mat. They told me that they’d just reopened the workout room the day before, so the yoga mat went back in the closet.
- It’s kinda the same very fluid situation right now with bars and restaurants. A few days before we got to Nashville, the mayor closed down any establishment with less than 50% of their sales in food, so pretty much all the bars and taprooms. Makes sense, not arguing it; just forced us to quickly pivot some of our plans. It also forced us to go a bit “old school”, back to making actual phone calls, asking “are you open; dine-in or just take-away?” since places seem to be having trouble updating their websites and their Facebook/Yelp/Google/OpenTable listings fast enough to keep up with the changes.
- It proved out our decision to book the Residence Inn rather than the mainline Marriott a few blocks away. The full-size fridge held a lot more beer, and that kitchenette came in handy when we found out that Prince’s Hot Chicken was only doing take-away — I can’t imagine trying to eat an extra-hot half-chicken perched on a king-size bed.
- Bridge Music — Hula Hoop Party by Stefan Kartenberg (c) copyright 2016 Licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution Noncommercial (3.0) license. Ft: Martijn de Boer, Blue Wave Theory
- Lots has been written about how the COVID pandemic has massively accelerated changes toward contactless transactions. Microsoft’s CEO famously said back in April “We’ve seen two years’ worth of digital transformation in two months”. Back in episode #136, I said I felt like the last generation of cash payers, that my younger colleagues rarely carried cash; they paid for everything with a card. Looking into my wallet, I had the same $200 worth of 20’s in June that I’d taken out of an ATM in March. Nobody wants to handle cash; they don’t even want to handle my card (Most extreme experience – A bartender at Asgard Brewing’s taproom in Columbia, TN sprayed my Visa card with diluted chlorine bleach before swiping it to pay my bill. Made my wallet smell like a swimming pool). As much as possible, places want us to pre-order and pre-pay, so we just pick up our purchases in a socially distant way and then head home. It’s also switched up some opinions on using facial recognition for flight check ins. Pre-coronavirus, the push was from governments as a better way to do security screenings and to improve immigration compliance, and this was getting big pushback on privacy concerns. Now, it’s pivoted. The push is from travel companies using facial recognition as a way of providing the touchless check-in experience that most travelers now want.
- But facial recognition is stymied by face masks which we wear when we’re checking in at airports and hotel lobbies. As is Face ID when trying to unlock my iPhone to get to my boarding pass or digital room key. Until I can downgrade to an iPhone SE with that old-school Touch ID that unlocks using my thumb print, I think I’m going to have to shorten the PIN code on my iPhone 11 Pro. I lengthened it for better security but am banging it in more and more often. And I’ve noticed the iPhone is really slow about recognizing my number presses — or it misses some when I go too fast (like when I’m trying to pull up a boarding pass in line) and errors out.
- Walking down the Hertz Five Star aisle at Nashville Airport, I saw their version of paper rings that hotels used to put around toilet seats to “certify” they’d been cleaned. In Hertz’s case, they put a “Hertz Gold Standard Clean” sticker across the driver-side center pillar (the B pillar for all my gearhead listeners) so that you break it when you open the driver door to get it. Nice gesture, though it kept me from doing my usual walk down the aisle, opening the door of a bunch of cars to check their mileage. Seemed rude to break all those stickers, though I did notice more than a few broken ones when choosing my car. Way back in the old days of TravelCommons, we used to talk about the TSA doing “security theater” in the screening lines. This feels a bit like “sanitation theater”.
- I finally broke down and bought a new set of Bose noise cancelling headphones — the new 700’s. This is my third set of Bose cans. Bought my first pair in 2009. I was flying a lot of short flights at the time, and in those days before regional jets, I was on a lot of prop planes. And they’re noisy — not just on take-off, but the entire flight. After a while, I started to notice fatigue when getting off those planes. Talking to a few folks, they said the noise heightens stress. A friend told me how much he liked his Bose cans, and so I burnt some Amex Membership Rewards points on Amazon for a pair of Quiet Comfort 2’s. It was a revelation; flick the switch and, whoosh, quiet. I took them on every flight, until 3 years later, I left them in a seatback pocket when rushing off a plane to make a tight connection. I immediately lit up some more Membership Rewards points for a new pair – QC-15’s. Four years later, I replaced a worn out set of ear cushions. And though the non-replaceable headband cushion is looking pretty ratty, the now 8-year-old headphones still work great. What got me to replace them was the wire. I’d be sitting in my usual aisle seat, plugged into my iPhone (using one of those dongles that Apple no longer gives you with a new phone). At some point in the flight, the folks in the middle and window seats would want to get up and use the toilet and inevitably, I’d snag the wire on the arm of the seat, pull the headphones off my head, and/or launch my phone a row forward. I could’ve gotten a pair of the QC-35’s — same form factor without the wire — but decided to go all next-generation with the 700’s, which has meant some adjustment pains. Like there are buttons in places where they never were before. So when I grab the ear cups to slip the headphones off, I manage to hit a button that changes the noise reduction level or summons Siri. Also new is using the touch surface on the right ear cup to control things. You tap or swipe the right ear cup to accept or drop a call, pause a song, raise or lower the volume, or skip 30 seconds to fast-forward past a podcast ad. I’m learning to be a bit more precise in my motions; I’ve already dropped a couple of calls when I was just trying to turn down the call volume. One thing I really like — more for working-at-home than in-flight usage — is that the 700’s can pair with two Bluetooth devices at the same time. So, for me, I have them paired with my MacBook Air and my iPhone and they switch seamlessly between the two. Nice when I’ve got Zoom calls on my Mac and then a phone call on my iPhone. And, call me shallow, but they look a bit cooler than my old QC-15’s. I’ve had the 700’s for about a month now and really like them. I guess you could say they’re “TravelCommons Approved.
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- Bridge Music — i knew by bridges (c) copyright 2008 Licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution Noncommercial (3.0) license. Ft: shannonsongs
First Post-Lockdown Flight
- Way back at the beginning of the lockdown, the first Saturday of April, I was on a Zoom beer drinking call with Rob Cheshire, a long-time TravelCommons listener and now a podcaster — he interviews UK craft brewers on his This Week in Craft Beer. It was a Saturday afternoon call, for Rob and the other guys in London; just past noon for me in Chicago, but hey…. And somewhere around our second or third beer, Rob asked me “When will you be comfortable getting on a plane again?” I really didn’t have a good answer. It was early days; I wasn’t sure.
- Fast forward to the back half of June. I needed to get down to Nashville again and didn’t have the time to burn 8 hrs for the drive down and another 8 on the way back. I had some travel funds sitting in my Southwest account from a couple of April trip cancellations, and Southwest flies 6 non-stop 737s between Chicago and Nashville while American and United only do smaller regional jets, and Southwest isn’t packing them full — booking those bigger planes at ⅔’s capacity — while American and United say they’ll let you know if your flight books solid. All told, a pretty easy decision to fly Southwest. One of the benefits of living in Chicago, a rare 3-hub town.
- The day before my flight, when getting my boarding pass on the Southwest app (my usual process; I was contactless before it was a thing), I had to click through a certification that I wasn’t running a temperature and that I hadn’t been exposed to or tested positive for COVID-19. OK, click. Then I get a screen telling me that face masks are required to board. Makes sense, click. And now I get my boarding pass.
- Monday morning, Irene drops me off at a pretty sedate departures curb at Midway. I mask up and walk in. It’s not empty, but it’s definitely not the normal Monday morning bustle. It feels more like a Wednesday early afternoon. There’s a bit of a line at regular security, but no line at PreCheck. The TSA agent asks me to drop my mask for a moment to check my ID and then waves me through. I noticed that TSA still has their October 2020 Real ID deadline warning signs on the podium. Hmm… I remember reading at the end of March that the TSA has pushed the deadline a year to October 2021. Guess they haven’t had a chance to issue updated signs. You’d think they’d just take the old ones down.
- Most of the restaurants and stores were closed; a pretty common situation. Kev Monteith, a TravelCommons listener and Amtrak travel blogger, replied to one of my Twitter posts saying “I flew Southwest a few weeks ago. Layovers are rough because most places in the airports are closed. I was at STL and only found beer at Burger King and Dunkin Doughnuts.” I would’ve been happy for just a coffee. Down in the main Southwest concourse, some gates were closed off with curtains which I assume was to keep people from sitting there so they don’t have to clean it.
- Looking around the terminal, it felt like mask usage was about 80%. Just about everyone was wearing them when walking around. I’d see some people not wearing them while sitting at the gate, though those folks were distancing themselves from everyone else. I’d see kids ripping their masks off as soon as they got off the jetway. I did notice, though, a sizable minority of mask wearers were just covering their mouths, leaving their noses uncovered — pilots, cleaning crew, passengers, wheelchair people. Now I’m no epidemiologist, but that seems to defeat the purpose.
- When the agent called boarding, she said “There’s 40 of you on a plane with 175 seats. So everyone gets their own row, and please, don’t everyone sit up front. We need a bit of weight distribution.” It was a quick boarding; we pushed back and took off early. These truly are unprecedented times.
- Nashville was more crowded on Thursday morning when I headed back home. Mostly families as I said at the top of the show. The end of the concourse where the Southwest gates are was as crowded as usual. There were signs around saying that 3 seats between people equals 6 ft, but there were too many people waiting to make it practical; at least everyone is masked up. I walked back up the terminal to find a bit more space and there, tucked away behind some construction sheeting, I found an empty gate. I’m all alone, mega social distanced, so I take off my mask, log into the WiFi and do some work until the Southwest app on my phone bings, telling me that boarding has begun.
- There were a lot more than 40 people on this flight. I found an empty row and slid all the way over to the window seat since it’s only a 90-minute flight. About 3 minutes later, a guy sat down in the aisle seat. Nobody in the middle seat. Everyone wearing masks and nobody’s head right next to mine, I was good to go. Maybe helped just a bit by the fact that, in those 3 minutes, I pointed all three air jets toward the empty middle seat and turned them on full blast, creating an air curtain between me and the aisle seat — just in case.
- Bridge Music — Misunderstood by 3lb3r3th (c) copyright 2013 Licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution Noncommercial (3.0) license. Ft: Alchemistry
When Does Business Travel Come Back?
- My son Andrew and his girlfriend took the 6am flight to LGA earlier this week. I asked him “How full was the flight?” “Maybe 20 people; mostly families,” he said. Didn’t surprise me that a Thursday 6am LGA flight was only at 11% capacity. That’s normally a business travel run; people getting up at 0 dark 30 in Chicago to make 10am meetings in Manhattan. But there’s not many business travelers now. While business travelers only make up about 10% of passengers on major airlines, they provide between 55 and 75% of the profits. You might could think they’re subsidizing the budget fares those families are using.
- Over the past month, I’ve been talking with Sales VPs at companies that deliver complex IT services. If anybody would be feeling the bite of not traveling, I thought it would be these guys. I’ve done a number of these deals, and they always involved locking all the right decision makers in a conference room to hash out all the contract details and ride herd over the transition. But I was completely wrong. They all said that work hasn’t slowed down during the lockdown. They’ve been able to do all that conference room work over Zoom. Indeed, they said being virtual has made it easier for them. Pre-lockdown, one of their biggest challenges was calendar wrangling — being able to get all their execs and the client execs into that conference room at the same time. Now, they just click some buttons and everyone shows up in Zoom gallery mode — no travel planning, no scrambling after cancelled or delayed flights. They all said they love the ease of virtual meetings and, at the end of the day, closing the lid on their laptops and having dinner with the family every night.
- Kinda supports the narrative that business travel will never rebound; back to the Microsoft CEO’s quote: in 2 months, we’ve advanced 2 years in virtual work culture. But when I probed a bit, I found that Zoom hasn’t completely replaced an airplane ticket. While these guys have been able to virtually close deals they had in their sales funnel, virtual meetings don’t seem to be replacing these deals; getting new prospects into the top of the sales funnel. So while things are looking good now, they’re beginning to worry about 4-6 months from now.
- This was the exact opposite of what I’d expected. I thought the give and take of negotiations, the sidebar conversations, the emotional content, wouldn’t translate into video calls. But it looks like I was wrong; that once a deal has some momentum and a structure to guide everyone, the in-person hammering out turns out to be a nice-to-have. And the reason new opportunities aren’t coming in is that they need more exploratory, abstract, wide-ranging conversations that lack that guiding structure and selling a team as much as a product — at least for complex services — and that’s tough to do over a pane of glass.
- And so they all said that they’d probably start traveling again — reluctantly — by the end of this month. But I do think this, call it a 4-month exercise in figuring out virtual work methods and cultures will move the set point, everybody’s default decision toward virtual meetings. And so maybe a bit less focused on high-profit road warriors and more dependent on those cost-conscious families. Does this mean repointing the 6am LGA flights to Cancun? They’re going to have to seriously reengineer those drink carts.
- Closing music — Pictures of You by Evangeline
- OK, that’s it, that’s the end of TravelCommons podcast #165
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