|BlueSky Business Aviation News|
Businesses have been implementing technological strategies to improve communication without having to travel.
This has been going on since forever, with the invention of writing, notes could be sent by hand; the invention of the post allowed large numbers of people to send letters, notes, and other documents relatively securely and relatively quickly. Then came the telegraph, first with wires, then without. Then the telephone, teleconferences, email, video-conferencing, web-meetings, web-ex, and variations on those themes. The idea is to reduce costs by trading a one-time (ha!) capital investment with minimal variable costs for the high variable costs associated with travel. Usually, it’s a pretty good trade.
Travel is expensive for businesses. It is not just the ticket that costs so much. There is the lost time from the office, which is often a total loss of productivity, the value of which is proportional to the importance of the traveler. There is the cost of travel to and from the various airports on either end, cabs, or rental cars, or limos. There are the meals and incidental costs, possibly including hotels and rented conference rooms.
What is the impact to business aviation?
For the top executives, I don't think the communications technology will end air travel, though it may well change the focus. A lot of very effective intra-company communication can be had for a relatively low cost using electronics, giving top executives the opportunity to use their limited face time more effectively with customers and critical suppliers. This is a benefit to the firm as it better leverages their time (top line growth is always more efficient than cost containment).
These telecommunication strategies may benefit business aviation. Top executives tend to fly bizjets, not commercial, which is much more efficient in terms of their time and personal productivity since they can often be home at the end of the day, and a business jet is usually fitted out to allow some work to be done. Crucially, groups of travelers--sales teams for example--can talk openly about the customer, the deal, the contractual terms, and strategy. This cannot be done safely on a commercial aircraft, but can on a business jet. So, if you do air charter, corporate flight departments, or jet air taxis, this change in the nature of business travel bodes well for you.
Resistance to change
Not every culture is as open to the implementation of telecommunication. Some cultures, like the Chinese, currently place a high value on face-to-face contact. The non-verbal communication is considered crucial to defining the relationship. This preference may be rooted deeply in cultural or religious values. The idea of consummating a deal via teleconference is anathema to these people.
Even we Westerners used to value face to face above any sort of impersonal communications; we used to travel extensively to check the authenticity of the person with whom we were doing business, to gauge their character through their handshake, to check out their shoes.
To digress just a moment, when the typewriter was first introduced in business, there was resistance because a typed letter didn't have the same personal touch that a hand written letter did. Email was resisted for much the same reason. Technology is often resisted because of its perceived distancing of interpersonal interaction, which is almost always true, by the way. But, the arguments of cost and efficiency always win out. Yes, the CEO still travels, still meets people face to face, but your average buyer? Not so much. When I worked in procurement, I traveled maybe once a year (commercial), and I was buying millions of dollars of aerospace equipment. All my other business was done by phone and email.
Will China become a sort of business aviation Shangri La? I don’t think so. We may have to wait till those cultural norms are demonstrated to have a significant impact on the bottom line and then watch those norms change, but they will change. The top ranks will continue with the more traditional communication approaches (and pride themselves on it), and the mid-ranks will move towards electronic communications because of the cost difference. And the bottom ranks will consider themselves lucky to have a job, as usual.
What to do?
Perhaps we might get more interesting answers if we reverse the polarity of the question. What can air travel offer to increase business travel? What has to be done or offered to make air travel more enticing and more value-added than telepresence technology?
Even existing aircraft can be refitted for in-flight telephone and internet. Interiors can be designed to support a working executive’s needs; they can even be modular for quick changes. For example, in my experience, it is nearly impossible to do any serious work while on an airplane. Lack of power outlets, lack of phone connection (why won’t a Blackberry work over the ocean?), lack of internet connections (that is changing), lack of room, lack of everything, it seems, but speed. Speed we got.
We need ground partners. Airports are not in the city center where most of us need to go and the obvious way to get there is rail, and there is no rail at the overwhelming majority of airports. Why can't I catch the subway to the hotel district with signs telling me which stop is closest to my particular hotel? Why can’t we develop subway lines first, and then build around the stops in a logical manner? Who is making money off of the current insanity?
Most of these issues can be resolved with better planning, thoughtful design, improved infrastructure, and integrated services from providers. I smell an opportunity here.
Terry Drinkard is a Contract Structural Engineer based in Jacksonville, Florida whose interests and desire are being involved in cool developments around airplanes and in the aviation industry. He has held senior positions with Boeing and Gulfstream Aerospace and has years of experience at MROs designing structural repairs. Terry’s areas of specialty are aircraft design, development, manufacturing, maintenance, and modification; lean manufacturing; Six-sigma; worker-directed teams; project management; organization development and start-ups.