Should business travellers be segregated by class depending on seniority, or will woke cabins see juniors and execs brushing shoulders?

There’s a whiff of a revolution in the air. Or so you would think, if you were to listen to some of the debates going on in the wings of travel management conferences. The heresy being espoused by some mavericks is a more egalitarian approach to corporate travel policies. Some are whispering that it is no longer appropriate for senior executives to travel up front while the more lowly languish down the back.

In my earlier column about purposeful travel, published in the March 2023 issue, I wrote about the growing tendency to see business travel as a strategic investment in people, rather than an avoidable cost to a company. Proponents of a ‘one class for all’ approach argue that if travel is to be more purposeful, then it ceases to be a perk of seniority but a fully justifiable business investment with a measurable return.

If this is the case, they conclude, all business travellers should enjoy the same level of comfort, whether it be on the flight, in their hotel room, in the car or on the train. Either it is no longer appropriate for senior executives to monopolise business class and the hotel club floor or everyone should sit in economy and sleep in an entry-level room, depending on the financial resources available to the company.

Some ultra-revolutionaries have argued that it is perhaps even more important that the ‘worker bees’ be better rested during a business trip than the ‘queen bees’, but that brings us into the realms of pure Marxism.

Are you worth it?

There is a healthy degree of logic to this argument, even if corporate ‘C suiters’ will be quaking in their Gucci loafers at the thought of it. For the most part, we no longer have executive washrooms or directors’ dining rooms, and many companies have dispensed with private offices all together, let alone the much sought after ones in the corner. Seniority in a company seems now to be defined by the pay check, bonus and accompanying package. Why is inequality still rife in the air, beyond the hotel lobby or in the train carriage?

There is of course a very plausible counter argument. The more senior you get in an organisation, the more responsibility you take on and the larger the decisions you take. The theory is that you generate a higher ROI both in the office and outside of it. It follows that there will naturally be greater consequences if you do not arrive at your business meeting on the other side of the world in good shape. You will be unable to perform and the company will suffer more than if a mere minion were in the same situation.

This is a long-established and reasoned argument employed by company directors, airlines and hotels the world over. As L’Oreal would put it, it’s because “you’re worth it”.

As a salesman for an airline for more than 20 years, believe me, I am well versed in all the arguments for paying that bit extra. A less used argument, but one that is very compelling for lawyers and accountants, is the privacy requirement. One of the most effective and hard to dispute cases for forking out for a premium travel experience is the need for privacy. If you’re a partner in a city law firm or a venture capitalist on the brink of a canny acquisition you can hardly have general members of the public looking over your shoulder, can you? This is not a problem facing a junior programmer for an IT company – or maybe it is?

The switch to economy

There will also be those that think all of this is just deconstructed communism or ‘wokery gone mad’. It all makes sense in theory, but in practice there will always be ‘some more equal than others’. They will say that the company just can’t afford to put all of its employees in first class, that there isn’t room in the club lounge for everyone, and people should have something to which they can aspire, anyway.

With business travel becoming more expensive and harder to justify, and with the increased carbon footprint of a bigger seat, all of us are more likely to be seated in 54K than 1A in the future. It will more likely be a case of everyone moving backwards rather than a mass pile into first class. The arguments for and against equality in business travel are finely balanced. While on a macro level, flying is an inherently socialist endeavour with the ‘rich’ in business class subsidising the ‘poor’ in economy, at a company level it is one of the last bastions of corporate inequality.

Richard Tams is an airline consultant and executive coach