From terrorism to protectionism, this could be a year for the road warrior to forget
THE YEAR 2016 was not a great one for business travellers. In Britain, the Brexit referendum and related collapse in the value of the pound made travelling abroad costly; transport strikes meant getting around was an ordeal for those who stayed put. In continental Europe, terror attacks targeted airports and tourist spots, while striking workers blockaded sea ports, grounded airlines and nobbled the air-traffic control system. America, meanwhile, had to deal with mammoth security lines at airports and Asian travellers had to contend with a slowdown in China, the world’s biggest business-travel market.
Sadly, 2017 does not look like it is going to be any better. Indeed, things could get worse. First of all there are oil prices. For travellers, the low cost of fuel was a rare bright spot in 2016. Cheaper flights meant more chance to chip away at the corporate-travel budget. Now the oil price is creeping back up, which means purse-strings may be tightened. Indeed, some airlines are already looking to offset rising costs by charging for drinks on long haul flights: farewell, then, to one of the last remaining creature comforts for business travellers. Expect generous loyalty schemes to come under pressure too, as well as further experiments with “last class” fares that lack even the basic perks of economy.
As well as oil prices the world will have to contend with policies proposed by president-elect Donald Trump. If Mr Trump ploughs ahead with plans to ban immigration from parts of the world he deems dangerous, and also to crack down on illegal foreign workers, one side-effect could be longer queues at airports as travellers’ documents are more closely scrutinised. If Mr Trump makes good on his promise to build a wall along the Mexican border, then southern checkpoints will be particularly clogged up. Leaving free-trade agreements such as NAFTA might mean further restrictions.
The effects of Brexit are as yet unclear. Those travelling between the rest of the EU and Britain will still enjoy free movement in 2017—any changes to that would only come about once Britain formally leaves the union. But who knows how political brinkmanship and bureaucratic red tape during the negotiations will affect travel at the margins. More stringent passport checks, or separate queues for countries which are, unlike Britain, part of the Schengen passport-free travel area are not inconceivable. Equally, with elections taking place throughout Europe, and the prospect of far-right anti-establishment parties making gains, an increase protectionism and barriers to entry could be on the cards.
What about China’s slowdown? On one level tighter budgets and diminishing opportunity will simply mean fewer opportunities for travel into and out of the country. On another, fears over a capital flight have led to the imposition of controls over currency flows. On top of that there is the prospect of a diplomatic spat between the Middle Kingdom and President Trump—whether over Taiwan, alleged currency manipulation or trade tariffs. That would not bode well for the perhaps 5m people who will travel between the countries this year.
More chilling is the continued threat of terror. The past few years have seen attacks that specifically target the places frequented by business travellers, such as planes, airports, hotels and districts popular with expatriates. If terrorists have another successful year in 2017, business travel will have become a more dangerous endeavour. If they have an unsuccessful one, the price might well have proven to be tighter checks and more restrictive travel.
It may not be all bad news. Technological innovation is continuing to make travelling easier, even as the global political environment threatens to slow things down. RFID tags on luggage, hotel keys stored on smartphones, apps that help make journeys seamless—expect progress to come thick and fast. And not all airlines are trimming free services to maintain margins. In fact some, like Delta, are even trialling the reintroduction of complimentary meals. Still, as we all know, there is no such thing as a free l