Skift Take

A record-breaking day for passenger numbers, with bankers once again rubbing shoulders with tourists in the terminal. But the good news stops there, because business travel traffic is proving impossible to forecast in the short term, and pre-pandemic levels aren't pegged to return until at least 2025.

Rebooted business trips and extended airline schedules have just helped London City Airport record its busiest day recently since the pandemic struck.

It was enough for its head of aviation to describe the moment as “beautiful.”

“Visiting friends and relatives traffic remains the strongest, but we can see grey suits in the airport again,” said Anne Doyere. “There’s a buzz in the terminal, and I’ve heard from the airlines that they’re enjoying seeing their staff so happy.”

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There’s probably relief thrown in with the emotions as well. Some 20,000 passengers passed through the airport on September 3, which was 30 percent up on the week before.

It’s now just over a year since the airport, which is located next to Canary Wharf, the capital’s financial district, entered into emergency mode. It cut the workforce by a third and paused its terminal expansion plan.

Passenger numbers in 2020 were down 82 per cent on the record 5.1 million passengers that flew in 2019.

To put things into context: from January to August this year it handled 214,000 passengers.

Mixing It Up

Making forecasts is impossible, Doyere said, and this is coming from a seasoned professional who’s been at the airport almost 10 years, and previously worked at Air France for four. But there are some promising trends she’s identifying.

For one, that first battalion of business travelers is, finally, being given the green light to fly. “Not many companies have a clear ban, but they need to get approval from their manager, and their senior manager,” she said. “But if your trip brings value, which is usually the case because it’s the first wave of travelers, sales development, they can go.” And the banks have done well during the pandemic.

Classic business destinations are coming back too. The domestic “heavyweights” were Belfast and Edinburgh during the crisis, but the airport is now seeing Dublin, Zurich, Berlin, Frankfurt and Amsterdam bounce back, with strong load factors.

And people are mixing business and leisure trips more. Doyere herself flew to Valencia recently to work remotely for a week.

From a leisure perspective, tourists continue to chase the last rays of sunshine. British Airways, for example, extended its summer season, including Greek island routes. “It was a good bet to continue those leisure routes,” Doyere said. “A lot of people who were uncertain this summer have decided to get a bit of sun later on.”

There’s now about to be some element of certainty following the confirmation that England will ease Covid testing rules and remove the so-called traffic light system, which has been a costly barrier to holidays. And further ahead, British Airways is adding a twice-weekly ski route to Salzburg, Austria, on December 10, while Logan Air flies to the Shetland Islands from May 9.

But it’s unclear how much corporate business will ever return, explaining why the airport is marketing business and leisure campaigns simultaneously. “What’s essential is to not put all your eggs in the same basket,” said Doyere. “It’s impossible to predict how business traffic will return.”

The terminal extension remains paused as recovery gets underway, but the airport predicts, like many others, that moment may not come until 2025.

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Tags: british airways, coronavirus, corporate travel, greece, london city airport, travel management

Photo credit: 20,000 passengers passed through the airport on September 3, 30 percent up on the week before. Daniel Klein / Unsplash

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