After writing a business travel column for The New York Times for more than 10 years, Joe Sharkey has endured a lot--delayed flights, lost bags, an emergency landing in the Amazon jungle (seriously). We caught up with him just before he boarded a flight to London. One hopes, not in the middle seat.
Is technology really replacing business travel?
Video-conferencing has been around for about 10 years, and for the past nine I've been very skeptical that it was going to replace business travel in any substantive way. But now an awful lot of self-employed business travelers--and that's been a huge growing market in the past five years--are saying they're occasionally using these technologies to supplement their ability to have meetings. I know a consultant who used to travel every week, and he's cut his business travel by more than half with teleconferencing. But I also know a guy who's a scrap dealer in upstate New York, and the only way he can run his business is through personal meetings. There are some businesses where you've got to look people in the eye--and scrap metal is one of them.
So, how much is travel shrinking?
The airlines are beginning to realize that a certain percentage of the business travel market is gone forever. They have alienated so many business travelers who are looking for any excuse to cut back on travel. The impetus is actually coming from younger travelers. They'll still go to Paris if there's an excuse, but they won't be on the road as much as the older generation of workers was.
Will the airlines get lost customers back?
Nope. It's over. Some airlines are smart. Southwest hasn't lost anywhere near as many business travelers because Southwest sells one-way tickets that you can change without paying a fortune. It's the entrepreneurs and independent contractors who are most affected by these fees. I'm a good example. I've been an independent contractor for 10 years doing this column, so I book and buy all my own travel, and I'm fed up with these $150 change fees. I have a rat's nest file of canceled tickets, and it's thousands of dollars in wasted money. I'm angry to the point where I've cut back on travel.
What annoys you most about travel?
Not being able to get an aisle seat on an airplane. I hate the middle seat. That's the first thing any business traveler tries to avoid.
Any advice on being a better business traveler?
I was flying over the Amazon and we collided with a 737 and it went down. There were 150 killed on the 737, and we astonishingly managed to ditch in the jungle and live. It was a lesson in how, man, you better be prepared for anything. Make sure somebody knows where you're going. Make sure your cell phone battery works. My phone wasn't internationally enabled. I'm like Mr. Hotshot, giving advice, and here I am in a police station in Brazil with a cell phone that doesn't work. I've never gone anywhere since without being way more prepared.