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Business Travel 2003

The term road warrior has taken on new meaning in 2003. A troubled economy, war in Iraq, SARS, and ongoing corporate mandates to cut costs—not to mention fewer available flights on many routes and heightened airport security—presented challenges to even the most seasoned business travelers. But times are tough for airlines and hotels too, and this fall plenty of them are offering enticements to those who know where to look. Here, the year's most significant business-travel trends, with strategies for charting the ever-changing course.

Improvements in the Air

More business travelers than ever must now fly coach, a fact made reasonably manageable during the past two years by perks on the major airlines, including American Airlines' "More Room Throughout Coach" program. That amenity is the latest casualty of the industry's woes, with seats being added back to the company's planes. At the same time, American and other major carriers continue to scale back flights on many business routes.

In contrast, the country's low-cost carriers are expanding: AirTran, JetBlue, and ATA have all added nonstop routes this year. Although these airlines first marketed themselves to leisure travelers, their success has been driven, in part, by their ability to lure business travelers with competitive prices, simplified fare structures, and popular extras like JetBlue's DirecTV service.

Taking a page from these upstart carriers, Delta launched its own budget carrier, Song, this spring, and plans to fly 36 Boeing 757 planes to 13 cities—including Atlanta, Boston, and New York—by year's end. Passengers will be offered 24 channels of digital television, streaming MP3 music, and movie rentals.

As for comfort, JetBlue recently announced that it will remove some seats on all planes by November, increasing seat pitch from 32 inches to 34—comparable to American's generous pitch under the "More Room Throughout Coach" program. (Note that the first nine rows of each plane will remain at 32.) While most low-fare carriers are coach class only, AirTran has a business class—with seven additional inches of legroom—and passengers can buy an upgrade for $35 or $50 (depending on the route), on a first-come, first-served basis.

For those who still fly with the majors, there is a new breed of airline ticket, known as an alternate business fare. A cross between a traditional business and a leisure fare, it is usually nonrefundable and carries a $100 change fee, but doesn't require a Saturday-night stay. It may, however, require a one- or two-night minimum stay and advance purchase of 3 to 10 days. Typically, an alternate business fare costs about one-third less than a full-fare coach ticket, and unlike many discounted fares can be applied to elite frequent-flier status.

Best Upper Classes

Some business travelers, of course, are lucky enough to still fly business and first. To keep these important customers happy—they effectively subsidize all those discounted seats—airlines have been revamping the front of their planes.

Fully reclining sleeper seats are the major trend: Air France, Singapore Airlines, and British Airways set the standard with sleepers in first class; the latter two further upped the ante by adding them to business as well. Now Qantas, Japan Airlines, and Lufthansa have introduced them in first, and all three will roll out sleepers in business class through the fall and next year. Virgin Atlantic, for its part, begins installing a revolutionary new sleeper seat in its Upper Class this year—one that doesn't have to be upright even for takeoff and landing. Among domestic carriers, American and United have installed sleeper seats in first class on 777's flying long-haul routes. Looking for the widest sleepers?They're on Japan's All Nippon Airways (33 inches), in first class.

In-flight Internet service is another expanding amenity. First- and business-class passengers on United can send and receive e-mails at their seat for about $16 per flight; the service will be on all planes by the end of the year. Lufthansa and Scandinavian Airlines have been testing broadband Internet and plan to equip more planes throughout 2004.

Happily, e-mail at 30,000 feet won't be the province of the elite forever: coach passengers on United already have e-mail access on many planes (through the Airfone at the middle seat in each row). Virgin Atlantic has introduced a service that will allow passengers in all classes to send e-mails and text messages from their seat-back television screens to e-mail addresses or mobile phones on the ground, for $2.50 per message. One-third of Virgin's planes will have the service by the end of 2003.

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