Grounded by pandemic, Atlanta’s road warriors return to the skies

Business travel is making a rebound, beckoning frequent fliers.

When Eric Goldmann took his first business trip after 15 months of being grounded by the COVID-19 pandemic, the avid road warrior sensed he was getting back to his true self.

Goldmann, who traveled almost weekly in pre-pandemic times for his health care technology sales job, was so pumped for his first in-person customer meeting in June 2021 that as soon as he landed in Jackson, Mississippi, “I just ran up to the Hertz counter, grabbed the keys, left the airport.”

“I just felt — I felt alive,” Goldmann said. It wasn’t until after his meeting he realized that in his thrill to get back to business travel, he’d forgotten to claim his checked bag.

Credit: Miguel Martinez

Credit: Miguel Martinez

More than two years after the pandemic disrupted business trips and corporate junkets, work travel is ramping up. Atlanta-based Delta Air Lines, the dominant carrier at Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport, says it has seen strong business travel this fall, a season that typically brings more work trips and conferences after the summer break.

But the rebound still has a ways to go. Corporate sales increased after Labor Day and are 80% recovered, Delta said during an investor conference call on financial results this month.

On average, business travel managers estimate their domestic business travel is at about 63% and international business travel at about 50% of 2019 pre-pandemic levels, according to survey results released in October by the Global Business Travel Association. About 78% of travel managers expect their companies to handle more business trips next year.

Credit: JOHN SPINK / AJC

Credit: JOHN SPINK / AJC

The rise of hybrid work could completely alter the future of business travel, experts say, with more Zoom calls replacing face-to-face gatherings. Some who used to travel weekly are now traveling monthly.

The experience of travel has also changed with airport and airline staffing challenges translating into longer waits for services, more flight cancellations and fuller and less-frequent flights to some places.

Still, for many frequent business flyers like Goldmann, who said he thrives on new experiences and the adrenaline rush of making pitches to clients, the travel is part of their identity.

“When COVID came and I was sitting at my desk, I went crazy,” he said. “Literally crazy.”

‘Center of the air travel universe’

For decades, the community of jet-setting business people who spend a significant amount of time in the air rather than on the ground has been a fundamental part of Atlanta’s economy.

Atlanta also relies on business travelers coming into town for conventions and business meetings. Hospitality remains Atlanta’s top industry, and hotel occupancy and convention business in Atlanta haven’t fully recovered to pre-pandemic levels. Hotel occupancy in the city of Atlanta reached 85% of 2019 levels by July. But large group bookings are strong for 2023 and 2024, according to the Atlanta Convention & Visitors Bureau.

Hundreds of companies — from Fortune 500 corporations to small businesses — locate their headquarters here in part for easy access to the world’s busiest airport. Hartsfield-Jackson offers flights to roughly 200 cities globally, with 80% of the U.S. population reachable within two hours by plane.

That makes Atlanta “the center of the air travel universe,” said Joe Leader, a frequent traveler who lives in Dunwoody and runs the Airline Passenger Experience Association. “You have more options here than nearly anywhere else.”

Credit: Ben Gray

Credit: Ben Gray

For business travelers, the number of nonstop routes from Atlanta means far less need for connecting flights and the accompanying increased risk of weather or mechanical delays and baggage problems.

At the Atlanta airport, “the one sign they’re missing for all the connecting travelers: If you lived here, you’d already be home,” Leader said. “Ninety percent of my flights are nonstop. It’s a wonderful world.”

The peripatetic lifestyle has become part of the culture for a segment of the Atlanta community made up of traveling consultants, salespeople, executives and entrepreneurs. They tend to thrive off of variety, social interaction — and airline frequent flyer status.

The prevalence of business travelers in metro Atlanta also makes travel jargon a lingua franca here, helping to spawn an entire, broader community of leisure travelers who chase frequent flyer status.

There are so many frequent flyers in Atlanta that Delta has nine Sky Clubs at Hartsfield-Jackson. United and American also have their own airport lounges. When priority boarding for elite frequent flyers is announced at Atlanta airport gates, it’s not unusual for dozens of people to stand.

“The airport and the companies, the people that work here, have had this symbiotic relationship that has caused more routes to be developed by airlines, and more people to choose Atlanta as their base of operations,” Leader said.

Some choose Atlanta-based jobs that call for frequent travel. Others who fly often for work decide to live in Atlanta because of the easy access to flights.

“I can technically live anywhere in the U.S.,” said Michael Moran, who owns a beauty brand called Private Label selling wigs, hair extensions and other products with several locations in Atlanta. “People ask me all the time... Why do you live in Atlanta?”

The reason is that “all my flights to all these awesome locations are all direct,” Moran said. “People that really understand that love living in Atlanta.”

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‘Got a little depressed’

David Gahan, who works in the software industry, traveled frequently around the world for 25 years until the pandemic hit. He said overnight he went from traveling about 20% of the time to being cooped up at home for about two and a half years.

“I like to throw myself into new things,” like going to a new city where he doesn’t understand the language, Gahan said. “I’ve done it so much it’s almost comforting.

“I kind of got a little depressed, to be honest, being home all the time,” he said. “I actually gave a lot of thought to moving to Maine because I didn’t need to be near Hartsfield anymore.”

Credit: Jason Getz / Jason.Getz@ajc.com

Credit: Jason Getz / Jason.Getz@ajc.com

During lockdown when he wasn’t traveling, Moran said his frequent flyer and loyalty balance grew to about 3 million points in part from credit card spending. He used the downtime to write a book on entrepreneurship.

“My cats loved us,” he said.

Cristina Briboneria, a financial planner, traveled about three or four times a month in the past, visiting clients and going to conferences. Then, after the pandemic hit, she settled into a more regular routine at home. It was different and comforting, she said, “having a normal diet versus having to be in a hotel or be out with clients.”

Eventually, she found she wanted to be closer to family, so last year she spent four months in Houston where she grew up.

“I still live in Atlanta primarily, because Delta is a hub, you can catch nonstop flights to almost anywhere in the country, anywhere in the world,” Briboneria said.

More Zoom, fewer reward miles

But even as business travel has resumed, with the rise of remote work and Zoom calls, many road warriors are taking to the skies less often than they did before the pandemic. Or, they’re visiting clients Tuesdays through Thursdays instead of five days a week.

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“Friday meetings are increasingly difficult to get,” said J.P. Morgan analyst Jamie Baker. “Most of our employees are coming back Thursday nights instead.”

Some geographic shifts during the pandemic also are changing business travel, altering how and where people live and work.

Delta President Glen Hauenstein said he thinks travel may never return to what it was in 2019, “but it will be bigger in different ways.”

“We have the migration of people out of some of the bigger cities in the U.S. to more rural areas or lower tax areas that have to get back to the office many times a year,” Hauenstein said.

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Among some who lived near the world’s busiest airport because their jobs required heavy travel, it could mean a migration away from Atlanta.

Leader, of the Airline Passenger Experience Association, said he has had colleagues who have relocated from Atlanta to other places like Lexington, Kentucky, during the pandemic, but now fly back to Atlanta as their business hub.

“They’re the ones that will be staying remote and traveling back to base,” Leader said. “Remote work changed the dynamic for road warriors.”

Credit: Ben Gray

Credit: Ben Gray

Gahan, the software executive, decided against moving to Maine. But he said some of his employees who also reduced travel moved to places like Idaho and Alabama. One employee is moving to an island off the Gulf Coast of Florida.

“Part of the reason we stayed in Atlanta was because of the type of work I do, it’s one of the best cities to be in,” he said. “I can get to Europe very easily, I can get to Asia very easily.”

But the travel experience has also changed since pre-pandemic days.

Labor shortages mean longer lines for service, some closed concessions and less-experienced workers trying to handle customers at the airport. Delta Sky Clubs are more crowded, since the airline extended elite status for business travelers who stopped flying, in hopes of maintaining them as loyal customers in the future.

Many hotels have cut back service, cleaning rooms less often.

The reduction of business travel during the pandemic paradoxically drove increased demand from leisure travelers paying for first class seats, according to Delta.

“All of these road warriors that have had their wings clipped for a couple of years, they’ve been taking more and more leisure trips, because traveling is what they love to do,” Leader said.

And for some, it’s hard to go back to coach.