The extremely contagious omicron variant in recent weeks rapidly has spread across the United States and Europe, as many epidemiologists promised, challenging airlines and other businesses to put together work schedules of healthy employees and delaying some companies’ return-to-office plans. But some indicators suggest that, nearly two weeks into 2022 the new variant’s rampage doesn’t appear to have led to dramatic new restrictions on or avoidance of business travel.
Several travel management companies contacted this week by BTN indicated that the spread of omicron—a variant that evidence suggests generally causes milder illness than the delta variant, even as it spreads more easily, according to some epidemiologists—has reverberated less in clients’ corporate travel restarting plans than did delta. Additionally, some recent data suggest that any falloff in corporate travel booking activity thus far has been limited.
Airline tickets sold by Airlines Reporting Corp.-accredited U.S. travel agencies that handle primarily corporate business during the seven days ending Jan. 9 were 49.5 percent lower than those sold during the commensurate week in 2019. That figure represents the overall decline in business travel volume during the pandemic, but it’s comparatively similar to figures from just before omicron’s late November discovery.
Weekly sales volume by those agencies in late October through mid-November ranged between 50.3 percent and 52.6 percent lower than the commensurate week in 2019, according to ARC, similar to the January figure. On the other hand, when the delta variant began spread through the U.S. in the summer of 2021, those comparative ARC booking percentages dropped quickly and sharply.
“The delta variant had a much greater impact than what we are seeing with omicron with respect to restarting travel, cancellations and restrictions,” Fox World Travel director of client solutions Tina Husemoller told BTN In an email. “The omicron variant has simply not impacted our clients’ decisions or policies near to the level of the delta variant.”
While not a business-travel-specific metric, daily U.S. Transportation Security Administration airport security checkpoint counts don’t show a severe drop-off from pre-omicron figures. During the Jan. 2-Jan. 11 timeframe, about 80.9 percent of the 2019 figure of air passengers went through security checkpoints, not too much lower than the 81.6 percent that did from Nov. 1-Nov. 19, 2021. (And that’s even with the spate of post-holiday, omicron-fueled flight cancellations.)
The omicron variant has simply not impacted our clients’ decisions or policies near to the level of the delta variant.”
Fox World Travel’s Tina Husemoller
Delta Air Lines CEO Ed Bastian on Thursday during the company’s fourth-quarter earnings call said he was encouraged by business travel volume amid omicron and said he was hopeful for a quick return to business travel recovery. “While the new variant is not done, it appears the worst may be behind us,” Bastian said.
Several TMC executives told BTN that they too were encouraged by the omicron business travel demand environment, especially when compared to the delta variant. “Our current volume remains strong in the Frosch corporate sector compared to pre-omicron, and we continue to experience increases week over week,” Judith Allen, president of the global corporate and energy division of Frosch International Travel, said in an email. “Our international locations are experiencing continued increases as well, but at a softer pace. We do see a bit higher volume of ticket exchanges compared to November, but only slightly.”
Corporates Waiting and Seeing
Still, even if corporate travel volumes, though reduced in the pandemic, are holding relatively steady, omicron could affect companies’ return-to-office plans and their willingness to allow employees to travel. Companies including Goldman Sachs and Facebook parent Meta are among those companies that have further delayed in-person office attendance as omicron surges
Some companies, including investment bank Jefferies Financial Group, according to the New York Post, specifically have reimposed business travel bans in the variant’s wake.
But several TMCs told BTN this week that their clients for the most part had held their travel policies steady and though some had implemented new travel restrictions, most have maintained their existing strategy.
“The landscape around the rise of omicron is in stark contrast to when the delta variant gained traction in early 2021—vaccination programs have advanced, government restrictions have loosened, transatlantic travel has restarted and offices have reopened,” American Express Global Business Travel EVP of global clients and general manager David Reimer told BTN via email.
“More than three-quarters of GBT clients have reopened offices, suggesting businesses are starting to shift from a pandemic to endemic mindset,” Reimer continued. “While some did close offices in December-January and travel restrictions have been reintroduced, over 70 percent of clients who haven’t reopened offices anticipate doing so in Q1 2022. Overall, there is undeniable momentum for recovery, and we expect an uptick from February.”
Frosch’s Allen also suggested in-person work delays could affect travel volumes even without additional restrictions.
“We haven’t experienced new restrictions being put into place for our corporate clients due to the outbreak of omicron at this point,” according to Allen. “We have heard of several delays of clients reinstating mandatory in-office requirements for key individuals, which could impact internal travel trending.”
Fox World Travel’s Husemoller also noted the limited effect of the new variant. “Generally speaking, this new variant is not causing any new imposed travel restrictions by our clients; the majority are continuing to take the appropriate precautions and gauge their travelers’ comfort levels with traveling,” she wrote. “Even those clients that lagged in their return to travel have not pulled back entirely, but they also didn’t hit the ground running as fast as they expected in January.”
TCG Consulting president Graham Ruskin in an email suggested that the structures companies had put into place during the pandemic and the experience they gained during the delta variant outbreak has helped them to address omicron in a measured and systematic manner.
“Early Covid travel management protocols pulled numerous inter-company stakeholder groups together (i.e. travel management, legal, risk and HR) and that togetherness has remained,” according to Ruskin. “Stakeholder groups are more closely connected, and a company’s preparedness to address, vet and operationalize safe travel (and those trips not to approve) is significantly elevated in 2022.”
As such, Ruskin noted, many companies’ plans regarding travel strategy have endured. “Organizations that planned or had plans to bring back selected trip types are working to progress forward safely,” he said.