The Business Air Travel Tipping Point, Part II

A colleague of mine and I were talking last week about my tipping point hypothesis concerning the latest (almost) terrorism incident and the resulting restrictions on air travel. He made a good point. The issue, he argued, was partly the restrictions on things like laptops and non-bodily fluids, but there was more to it than that.

The deeper issue? To his way of thinking the thing that will make this a real tipping point is that business travel has become stochastic. You enter an airport, check in, and throw yourself into the airline travel machine — and then you get spit out at some unpredictable point in the future. You don’t know whether your flight will take off, let alone when it will land. That total unpredictability represents the real tipping point for business travel.

Case in point, consider the news from Heathrow airport in London today:

Heathrow Airport said a third of outgoing flights were canceled on Sunday as the world’s busiest international airport struggled with new security measures introduced after a terrorist plot to bomb up to 10 U.S.-bound passenger jets was foiled last week. [Emphasis mine]

We’re three days after the almost incidents and resulting changes in screening procedures, and Heathrow still had to cancel a third of its flights. Is there a better example of air travel unpredictability than that?


  1. I am the founder of a teleconferencing and group communication company, so I am pretty familiar with the issues at hand.
    I don’t think that business travel is obsolete by any means, but that the purpose of business trips is going through a big shift, away from short sales trips to long duration trips.
    I am currently setting up an office in South America, which is a long trip from California. However, I only plan to make the journey a few times per year with 1-2 months on either end. I don’t mind so much if I have to reschedule that kind of trip by a day or so.
    What I no longer do are short trips for the sole purpose of a meeting that could be done by phone. These are invariably a huge waste of time, and in most cases face to face meetings are not necessary except as a ceremonial thing (something you can do after a deal closes, and in a more informal way).
    Business travel is still very important for me, but mainly for managing personal relationships with vendors and customers. These types of meetings are, by definition, not time critical in most cases, so I can schedule them along with other trips and if something comes up, I can always do it another time.
    I also avoid Heathrow like the Plague. It sucks even under good conditions.
    Brian McConnell
    Open Communication Systems

  2. glarbspeak says:

    My physics advisor always said never trust anyone who uses ‘stochastic’ instead of ‘random’ when trying to explain a concept.

  3. Suddenly, tips on how to breeze through check-in and what to bring on board (to be productive to keep one entertained) are now obsolete due to the restrictions and increased security checks.
    And now, we do not even know if we can leave or not.

  4. glarbspeak: Guilty as charged.
    Melissa: Reminds of that scene in Apollo 13 in which one of the characters is trying to figure out the order to restart one of the modules without exceeding the current requirements. First this, then this, then this … and damn, blew the whole thing up.

  5. I remember the first time I traveled through India by plane, thinking exactly the same thing. Schedules were rough guidelines at best. It really bugged me for the first few weeks until I relaxed and learned to go with the flow. “I’ll get there at some point…”

  6. Tipping to what? Driving? Uh, no.
    Let’s face it: jet travel is a modern miracle. Wake up in Austin, attend a morning meeting in Palo Alto, and be back home in time to sleep in your own bed. So there are some inconveniences, discomforts, and even humiliations along the way. Maybe even a statistically insignificant chance of getting blown to bits by some wild-eyed zealot. But it sure as hell beats the alternative, Webex notwithstanding.

  7. In a few months the current inconvenience of air travel will be forgotten and we will be right back to normal…or as normal as things can be in the post 9/11 climate.
    In addition to all of its benefits, the internet seems to condense our perception of time horizons and make us more impatient. You’ll get there eventually…and at least you have your iPod and portable DVD player to keep you company in the meantime.
    Personally, I’m going to invest $8,000 and a few months to get myself a single prop pilot’s license to fly my own damn self around.

  8. Yet another reason to get a business jet.
    Actually, if I ran an airline company, I might look at providing business-only flights, perhaps with passengers vouchsafed by their employers, which in turn presumably can be trusted. Net Jets on the cheap.

  9. I was, unfortunately, scheduled to travel from Seville to San Francisco, via Madrid and London, on Thursday morning. I arrived in Madrid at 8:30 AM, all seemed well. About 30 minutes before my flight was supposed to leave, the sign just flashed “closed.” No announcements. Just “closed.” I spent 9 hours in the airport before I was told that I was confirmed on a flight the next morning (Madrid -> Lisbon -> Newark -> San Francisco). The next morning, I arrive in Lisbon, clear custom, wait in line for 1.5 hours, and then they tell me that I can’t get on the flight because it’s oversold. I spent that night in Lisbon. I travelled for 24 hours on Saturday and finally made it to SF at 11:00 PM. It took 3 full days to get from Seville to SF.
    I know others who were stuck even longer. One couple was told that it would take another 5 days to get them home.
    I am going to be using web conferencing in place of in-person meetings as much as possible going forward. The need for face to fact interaction will always be there, though, no matter how much people would like to avoid traveling.

  10. “You’ll get there eventually…and at least you have your iPod and portable DVD player to keep you company in the meantime.”
    If they let them past security….
    I personally find the new rules an extreme knee jerk reaction and the security resources at airports face a serious “Signal vs. Noise” issue now when it comes to spotting threats.
    One security consultant I saw interviewed put it well when he said “Now we’ve got people looking for ‘objects’ not ‘suspects'”.
    Secuirty is more distracted looking for a tube of “illicit” toothpaste and everyone is now more tense & agitated then normal – making that guy who is about to kill himself all that much harder to recoqnize.
    Sure wishing I owned some of the time-share jet or the DayJets of the world right now…