Annual trend recap pieces usually wait until the end of the year but am I tempting fate too much to call it largely a wrap on 2021?
With travel frequently doubling last year’s levels each day, and approaching parity with 2019 around the leisure-heavy holiday period, we’re back in the skies and putting our heads down on hotel beds. With far more hassle like vaccine paperwork and testing, international travel is returning though much of Asia Pacific remains tough. And travel companies – and their bank partners – are hungry for your business.
- Vaccines, therapeutics, and re-opening. In June 2020 I wrote I expected a vaccine approved before end of year and mass vaccinations in spring 2021, and that I expected we’d need boosters (“I don’t expect a ‘one and done’ vaccine that protects you for years”). Now we have vaccines, and we have boosters. We have the the Pfizer pill Paxlovid that appears 89% effective in preventing hospitalization when taken within 3 days of symptom onset. It should be approved soon along with the Merck drug, and cheap and available anti-depressant Fluvoxamine seems effective too.
We’re less than two years into the pandemic and we have vaccines, small molecule inhibitors, monoclonal antibodies (which aren’t just treatments but also can be prophylactic), and more. How are we not throwing ticker tape parades for the scientists that have given us these tools? Among the more pedestrian outcomes, they’re allowing travel, reuniting families, bringing about a return to normal life.
- Huge credit card bonuses. A confluence of events – most important being the period of time where no one was applying for cards (or getting approved) while customers did cancel cards as they do every year – has led to bigger card bonuses than we’ve seen in a long time, as issuers try to replenish the funnel.
- Capital One Venture X. Capital One entered the premium travel rewards credit card game in a big way, and they also improved their miles transfer making their currency convert 1:1 into most partner programs. They launched a pretty good travel portal, and even an airport lounge network. DFW is the first lounge open (Denver and then Washington Dulles coming next) and the space is gorgeous, “grab ‘n go” food where they actually encourage you to take something on your flight is awesome, and the quality of food is shockingly good. More competition is good for consumers.
- Bilt Rewards. A brand new loyalty program aimed primarily at renters, they reward signing leases with major high rises in urban areas – and offer a no annual fee credit card with similar points-earning to a Sapphire Preferred card (3x dining, 2x travel) that also awards up to 50,000 points per year on rent payments – something you might have had to pay over $1400 to Plastiq.com to accomplish before.
What’s more, they’ve managed points transfer partnerships with American Airlines (even 34 year AA partner Citi couldn’t do that until after Bilt introduced it, and even then only temporarily) in addition to programs like Air Canada, Hyatt, and Turkish.
I don’t rent but I applied for their credit card to become more engaged in the program in order to cover it better. Given over 40 million rental households in the U.S., and that they’re offering value no one else does, this has the potential to be a huge program.
- American Airlines Loyalty Points. The first modern frequent flyer program, American AAdvantage, has revamped how elite status is earned entirely recognizing that a customer who just flies the airline isn’t nearly as profitable as one who also uses their co-brand credit card, shops online through their portal, and engages their program in a variety of other ways. Airline tickets are one of the lowest margin activities they offer.
By counting activity from a variety of sources towards status they’re probably getting loyalty right even though some customers who just squeaked into their status with the lowest spend requirements on tickets in the past, who can’t or don’t want to use their credit card, lose out under the model. As one very senior travel industry executive put it to me, this has the potential to be industry-defining.
- Aggressive status matches. No one knows who among their past best customers will be a great customer again in the future, if they haven’t been traveling for work. But status doesn’t cost much if you give it to someone that doesn’t travel. It’s made a lot of sense to bet on adding past top elites into the fold and win over those customers for the future, as the wide variety of matches being tracked attests to. Perhaps the most aggressive is the status match offer for U.S. elites from Air Canada Aeroplan but other airlines have been doing it too, the most recent offer coming from American.
If you have current elite status (perhaps earned in 2019 and extended) and might want to consider travel with a competitor, now is a great time to ask for a status match.
- United… Rising? United was doing interesting things before the pandemic, like ‘connection saver’ to actually hold planes for passengers when it wouldn’t cause other customers to misconnect. But their upswing has really happened over the past year and a half.
While they never blocked middle seats during Covid-19, they ran aircraft APUs on the ground in order to maximize airflow and take advantage of HEPA air filtration even during boarding and deplaning.
They’ve made a bet on supersonic jets as well as electric planes and are investing in real environmental technologies that could make a difference, not just carbon indulgences.
And United is putting seat back video into older aircraft and investing in better inflight internet. All of this under the leadership of Scott Kirby, who I once described as a destroyer of airlines based on his stints as President of US Airways and at American and the cutbacks to United’s domestic first class meal service and to the international business class product after he arrived at United.
Kirby says he was never CEO before, always working for someone else, but everyone I’ve known that’s worked for him always found his as the ultimate spreadsheet guy – if you couldn’t prove a service element delivered revenue to the bottom line directly, it was out. But he’s been forthright about his vision for the airline for the past four years, I’m yet to be fully convinced he’s been converted, but the recent shift has been remarkably positive.
It’s not all sunshine and unicorns at United, of course. Since they were the first to really get the gravity of the pandemic, and view it as an existential fight for survival, they were also one of the most egregious in refusing to issue refunds for flights they cancelled (in essence, stealing customers’ money) until the Department of Transportation stepped in. And much of what they have in store that’s upside is in the product roadmap, rather than being a reality today. Once better internet is onboard in a meaningful way I’ll let myself fly United regularly.
- Pay more, get less and businesses hope we’ll learn to live with it. Travel providers continue to use the pandemic as an excuse for providing customers with less even as they regain pricing power. Hotels are working to eliminate daily housekeeping, and cold meals in domestic first class continue on some airlines in the name of Covid safety as though galley ovens have been found to be a major vector of virus spread. Meanwhile we’re told that business is tough, it’s hard to find employees, and so many airport restaurants remain shuttered.
U.S. airlines like Delta and American haven’t had enough pilots to fly their schedules, causing havoc. Other airlines like Southwest.. and American haven’t had enough flight attendants to fly their schedules, causing havoc. All this despite taxpayers shelling out $50 billion in direct transfers for the purpose of keeping everyone employed (didn’t happen) and ready to work when travel returned.
- Uncertainty for business travelers. Business travelers in many cases don’t know what their travel life is going to look like yet. Return to office at many big companies was pushed into next year, and companies that aren’t back in the office generally aren’t sending travelers out on the road.
You can’t visit clients in closed offices, or that have capacity limits and people in-office on limited days of the week. And most large events have been slow to come back. The ability to hold large Convention Center-style gatherings, indoors, has been limited.
Norms have changed, too. It used to be a group of people would make a trip for a single meeting. There would be a third or fourth person present just as a warm body. Bringing a team signaled commitment. Now it just seems silly. We’re all geared towards bringing people into meetings electronically, and it just seems like a waste.
At the same time there’ll be new kinds of travel, people who used to work in their office every day living out of state and coming in once, twice, three or even four times a year for team-building events to get everyone on the space page about vision and strategy. No one knows yet what that looks like, or whether the old “Monday – Thursday consultant week” is indeed dead.
Maybe the real biggest story was the unnecessary second and third airline bailouts, or how few hotel owners restructured in court during the pandemic. Or how we haven’t used the time during the pandemic to update ventilation and air filtration of indoor facilities like hotels and schools. But for U.S. frequent flyers these seem like the biggest developments to me. What am I missing?