Think Business Travel Will Return? American Airlines Isn’t Sending Employees Back To Its Own Office Yet

American Airlines invested hundreds of millions of dollars in a new headquarters, with their old facility bursting at the seams. They’ve since let go of 30% of management staff so don’t need as much space. And those that are left have mostly still working from home.

Office work is very different than it was before the pandemic.

  • Work from home turned out better than most thought it would. Zoom held up better.
  • Colleagues were forced to invest in the tech transition figuring out how to do meetings online. Remote folks were no longer the odd ones out, only half in the meeting compared to people in a conference room together.
  • And a lot of top talent turns out to like it and doesn’t want to return to the office full time.

That means a certain amount of business travel doesn’t come back,

  • It’s hard to have a meeting in person with a group of people that aren’t together
  • It’s no longer as necessary to physically ‘show up’ to demonstrate seriousness and appear to be a ‘real’ contributor. Already-remote workers no longer need to go into an office anymore, and not just because there aren’t as many people in the office they’d be meeting with anyway
  • And since so many people have gotten more comfortable with online meetings, talks and presentations can more easily be given that way. In my own case there are places I’d have gone for, perhaps, a 90 minute talk that took two days when you factor travel and the need to go out in advance because of the risk of delays and flight cancels. Remote isn’t as good as in-person but it’s a lot less costly, too.

The pandemic changed many things. Even ISIS went to remote work, banning non-essential business travel. Remote work is here to stay though that does mean bringing remote workers together sometimes to share company vision (and, for the cynics out there, forced fun and trust exercises).

Even the world’s largest airline isn’t bringing its own employees back to the office full time. At a question and answer session with employees following the carrier’s first quarter earnings call, a recording of which was reviewed by View From The Wing, Thomas Rajan, American’s Vice President in charge of compensation and benefits explained how the airline is thinking about return to in-person work.

The short answer is we are building a plan to start getting people back in the building more.

…Over this past year we’ve seen incredible advancements…we’ve been forced to adapt to new ways of work. How do we take all of those things as we go forward? .. As we start getting into the early part of the summer we’re going to be asking folks to spend a little bit more time in the office.

For those of you who are part of the Skyview complex, where your work is typically done it’s usually about 25% of your schedule, you’ll look to see 2-3 days a week that you’re coming into the office.

And then later this fall as we start seeing…vaccinations fully in force, with availability, we see businesses opening we believe this campus should be open for business. That’s what we’re planning for.

But of course it all comes together with the type of work that all of us are engaged in. There are some pieces of work that are done better when you have focus time when you’re away from the office and it gives you the chance to be able to do that. And what we’ve also learned is sometimes our best work is done in when we’re person, when you’re together with your colleagues and you have the ability to engage, innovate, interact, all of these brings happen and fundamentally we are a business that brings people to a place in person. That’s the reason why we don’t like seeing the things like zoom, we want people in person, it’s just a good way for us as we run our business.

In short expect over the early part of the summer, we’re going to do this staged to have folks coming in a little bit more…as we get into the early part of the fall, depending on the type of work, depending on the nature that’s there, we’ve learned a lot over this past year. That’s the key as we say how to do we apply that.

It’s also taught us that look, for mental health, for the ability to build our culture and all of the things we do, being in person is a really good thing.

Early in the pandemic American’s headquarters employees petitioned to be able to work from home. American wasn’t the only airline resisting this. I covered United’s reluctance to allow it as well. A year later even airlines are embracing remote work and that changes a lot about business travel.

American’s campus will be open five days a week. And of course frontline employees have been working in-person at airports. But even American realizes that remote work is here to stay for some people and roles.

At the same time American is resuming construction of unfinished parts of the corporate campus, including the hospitality center for employees to come stay there for training. There should be site activity starting in May or June and expect to complete at end of 2022, opening at the start of 2023.

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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  1. I’m over WFH. Unless I get a pay raise to get an apartment with a separate room as an office I rather go back to the office.

  2. When I was 22 in 1991 the fax machine was going to be the last nail in the coffin of K Street and Midtown real estate.

    It will take time, but people who are willing to engage in person will push out those who are not and, in time, people will recoalesce to in person interractions. This commercial: will be as pertinent in 2025 as it was in 1990.

  3. @ Jack

    Absolutely. I went into our, supposedly, closed, office the other day to get a file and found another 6 people there. They are fed up with working from home too. Too impersonal.

  4. @jack,
    I completely agree.Not going to work with someone who only offers WFH.
    What are the examples of this claim “ a lot of top talent turns out to like it and doesn’t want to return to the office full time”.

    I can’t believe that’s true. You want to be as close to the CEO as possible.

  5. I’m agreed with all the posts so far. I had to do remote work for about six months and hated every day of it. I hope never to do it again. I love being back at work in person, and there are increasing numbers here as time goes by. Ran into two people today that I hadn’t seen in a long time, one of which said it was her first day back. She seemed to be beaming to be here. Sure there will be more WFH than there was in 2019, but I don’t think it is for most people. Travel for business will rebound too. My sister, who travels extensively in her executive job just got word a few days ago that a policy forbidding travel has finally been rescinded as if May. That too may not come back all the way, but but it will grow fairly quickly.

  6. I also think most business travel is going to come back. The only reason zoom meetings between businesses worked this past year+ is because everyone else was forced to do them too. Too much happens in-person that a zoom meeting just won’t capture. Too much communications are lost over video calls. The feel/heartbeat of the office. The demeaner of people that aren’t just “on” for a video call. The quick conversations that happen with lower-level employees as you’re walking to lunch. The crazy discussions that happen in the bar at 2am. I’ve found many people don’t want to be as open and up front on a video call as the would in person (even while sober).

    I think once people start traveling again, those not willing to spend the money on travel will start to see the impacts on the bottom line.

  7. Let’s see:
    American spent tens of billions of dollars on stock buybacks- the largest in airline history – only to have its market cap fall to a fraction of its peers.
    American spent tens of billions of dollars on new aircraft and never gained an operational cost advantage and now
    American has now spent more than any other US airline on headquarters facilities, a good chunk of which will likely never be filled.

  8. Even when it comes to in-person interactions in restaurants, have you seen how many times and for how long even middle age and older adults are distracted by their smartphone toys? And younger persons than those groups are even more often distracted from the people with whom they are seated.

    With that kind of behavior becoming more widespread, in-person meetings may not have the same future as they had in the past. But there will always be some place for getting together in-person, and population growth meaning something too for that.

  9. I’ve been working from home for 10 years (though I have occasional in person meetings and inspections). I don’t know why it wasn’t more common b(well, micromanagement). If you’re struggling with it, try treating it like a “normal” job. Get up, get dressed with real clothes, eat breakfast… try to maintain a routine. Set up a separate work space on your home. Organized your files. It’s important to get out too during the day or after finishing up, go for a walk, get takeout for lunch, make a personal phone call… Cabin fever is real.

  10. Just an FYI, all the top talent have either been let go or have left AA thanks to the sizzling job market in DFW. The few ones remaining are H1 visa captive. Its a high school popularity contest everday and top talent doesn’t really stick around being underpaid and overworked. I am just glad that AA is not a tech company. The reason why management wants to bring employees back in is to justify the money spent on building the campus when they could have very well paid down some debt with all those profits.

  11. There is a lot of truth in Gary’s points, and flying around just to have a face to face meeting with someone you already know may well be replaced by Zoom. But other meetings and conferences may be a different question. We have already seen a situation where our ability to provide a particular service to a client is being hampered by the absence for the last year of the informal networking and information-gathering that conferences normally provided (and has not been replicated by their virtual panels of talking heads). Had that conference been available, that $2000 expense (my company pays only economy) would have paid for itself many times over.

    Keep in mind, too, that with technology, you can travel anywhere and be just about as productive as you are at home or the office. It used to be that if you traveled for work, you were simply not doing your day-to-day job while you were out, and that absence was a material cost in deciding how much employees should travel. That ceased to be much of a consideration a couple of years ago.

  12. Amen @AATech I’ve been with AA over 12 years and I’m definitely looking.
    Customer Service is forcing 35% of their staff to leave Dec 31st unless they work full time shifts, which is not what they are hired for. And without the umbrella/benefits they offered the same department in May. Some employees were specifically asked to stay with the department back in May because of their skills but are now being “administratively separated” without the pay, flight, miles, etc., they would have received has they taken the 2020 package. There is a new AA sheriff in town and she is a chopper and big on outsourcing. Ask the next phone or chat rep where they are. Mexico or the Caribbean? Have fun with that.

  13. What about hotel jobs that people are because of the. paying for health.or benefits blaming the virus.that what corporate America is doing now.

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