What’s new in the airline industry are “bleisure” passengers who combine business and leisure.
Presumably, they travel at noon rather than at the beginning and end of the day; travel on weekdays instead of Fridays and Mondays; fly to Bozeman to work remotely and also ski, and sit in Delta Comfort or Main Cabin Extra or United Premium Plus, because they can.
Emerging trends in leisure travel, also known as “combination travel,” were discussed at American, Delta and United’s third-quarter earnings calls this month and appeared to be seen as a sign that the pandemic has led to long-term change . in travel patterns.
The Southwest is not so sure. Its executives see the trends, but are not ready to conclude that they portend long-term change.
“Personally, it took me a while to decide that we have a new trend, and that [it’s] the trend over a long period of time,” Southwest Chief Executive Officer Robert Jordan said Thursday in response to a reporter’s question about whether the company is seeing the same move toward leisure travel as other carriers.
“Leisure trends are very strong,” Jordan said. “Business trends have come out of (a) downturn and are strengthening. So our overall revenue trends are very strong. They’re getting even stronger in the fourth quarter. We think they’re going to get even stronger in 2023. So that’s the focus versus trying to understand exactly if some of these things are forever.
“The leisure force has been with us for a long time coming out of Covid,” he said. The extended travel windows for leisure travel, for example, its continuation in September, is “remarkable”, he said. “You can see them, and they’re real. What I think we want to be careful with is trying to decide that this is forever.”
In terms of business travel, Southwest saw it start to increase, decline in July and August, then resume growth in September. Andrew Watterson, chief operating officer, said: “After every recession, the demand for business travel changes, the behavior changes a bit. So we should expect it to change this time as well.”
Southwest still sees more leisure travel in July than in September. “The surprising finding is that there is more leisure travel in September than there used to be,” Watterson said.
“That tends to lessen some level of seasonality, but you’re still going to have that seasonality,” he said. “It is a welcome development, [but] but they’re still going to have peak season and off season.”
Where does the term “bleisure” come from?
According to Wikipedia, “the term bleisure was first published in 2009 by the Future Laboratory as part of its biannual Trend Briefing written by writer Jacob Strand, then a future forecaster working for The Future Laboratory, and journalist and futurist Miriam Rayman.”
In the airline industry, the conversation about combined travel and bleisure increased in 2022. Vasu Raja, chief commercial officer of American Airlines, was the first to regularly talk about “combined travel”. Raja’s most focused and comprehensive public discussion of blended travel came at the Skift Global Forum in September.
There, he noted that airlines have long divided passengers into two categories, business and leisure, leading companies to bifurcate pricing, seating and schedule strategies. But during the pandemic, he said, the distinctions were blurred. “Business and leisure is itself a nomenclature thing,” he said.
“A lot of what airlines have done over the years [is that] we could go send the world a low rate or a fast schedule,” Raja said. “That created a natural segmentation…” People [saw] themselves as business or leisure [because] that’s the only option we’ve got.”
Historically, a business flight might take an early New York-Chicago flight for a meeting and fly back the same night with only carry-on luggage, he said. A “leisure” passenger was someone who flies to Orlando with a spouse and children and checks their luggage.
Today, a “mixed” passenger flies to Bozeman, Mont., “for pleasure,” which actually means “doing lectures on Friday and hiking on Saturday,” Raja said. Today, he said, nearly 50% of U.S. revenue comes from mixed travel, up from 25% before the pandemic.
The emergence of the combined travel pandemic has been fueled by the increased use of Zoom and video conferencing, which has enabled an increase in remote work. The increased purchase of premium seats was also seen as part of the bleisure trend, although it could also be related to the shrinking playing field in coach cabins.