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Business travel will surge in summer, analysis says

Leisure travel will be about the same as summer 2010, Travelclick data suggest. Also, United Airlines plans to keep first-class seats on international flights, and Alaska Airlines will expand Wi-Fi service to more aircraft.

June 06, 2011|By Hugo Martín, Los Angeles Times

With summer nearly here, you might expect to see a jump in leisure travel — a chance for families to take vacations while the children are out of school.

But with the economy showing signs of rebounding and companies loosening the purse strings on travel budgets, a new survey suggests that business travel will surge during the summer while leisure travel will remain about the same as a year earlier.

So the lines at airports may be crowded this summer not with families packing sunscreen and snorkels but with business travelers wearing suits and lugging briefcases.

The number of business travelers who have committed to rent rooms this summer is about 8% higher than last summer, according to new data collected by Travelclick, a New York company that provides e-commerce products and services to the hotel industry. But the same report indicates leisure travel will remain about the same as last summer.

Overall, that is good news for the hotel industry because business travelers tend to stay in more expensive rooms while families on vacation often share rooms at budget hotels.

The revenue that hotels collect per room for business travelers is expected to go up 13% this summer compared with the same period last year, while revenue from rooms rented by leisure travelers is expected to rise only 4%, according to Travelclick.

"This summer, business travel has been and continues to be strong as the U.S. economy continues to recover," said Tim Hart, executive vice president of business intelligence at Travelclick.

United to keep first-class seats on international flights

Although some airlines have eliminated first-class seats on international flights over the last few years, United Airlines has announced it will not follow suit even after it completes the merger with Continental Airlines this year.

First-class seats have been disappearing from international flights for years, but that trend accelerated during the recession when business travelers were forced to cut costs by flying in business or economy seats. To accommodate such fliers, many airlines improved business-class seats, making them the de facto first-class seats.

Delta Air Lines, for example stopped offering first-class seats on international flights years ago, opting instead to sell a "business elite" class. Last year, Qantas Airways replaced first-class seats with business-class seats on all of its Boeing 747-400 planes, saying it was responding to "changing demands."

"The economy has dictated the move away from premium seats, especially during the recession," said Rick Seaney, founder of the travel website farecompare.com.

On international flights, Continental offers only economy seating and a "BusinessFirst" section that includes special meals and "flat bed" seats that fully recline.

But Jeffery Smisek, president of United Continental Holdings Inc., the parent company of United and Continental, told Bloomberg News that the first-class seats make "a lot of sense" in certain markets.

George Hobica, head of airfarewatchdog.com, agrees.

"United is keeping first-class seats in order to compete internationally with Lufthansa, British Airways, Air France, Singapore and others, and to distinguish itself from Delta and US Airways," he said.

Alaska Airlines to expand Wi-Fi service, give pilots iPads

Alaska Airlines announced last week that it plans to expand Wi-Fi services to more than 90% of its fleet of 117 Boeing 737s by the end of the month. In November, the carrier had wireless Internet on about 70% of its fleet.

Last week's announcement came only days after the Seattle airline announced that it was issuing new iPad tablet computers to its pilots to replace the 25-pound flight manuals that they take with them into the cockpit.

Alaska will be handing out the 1.5-pound iPads to all its pilots by mid-June. The devices will include a reading application that will let the pilots scroll through hundreds of pages of manuals, reference cards and other material.

But pilots will not get a break from the Federal Aviation Administration rules that forbid the use of electronic devices during takeoffs and landings. Besides, Internet access on jetliners is available only in the cabin, not in the cockpit.

And the iPads won't have computer games, joked Alaska spokeswoman Marianne Lindsey. "The pilots will not be playing Angry Birds during takeoff."

hugo.martin@latimes.com

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