The glut of pictures of disgruntled travellers at Terminal 5 after its ill-fated opening served as a clear illustration of the lack of glamour now associated with air travel. Among those left tapping their toes were a raft of business travellers and frequent flyers.
There is no doubt that business travel is not what it once was, and time pressures combined with budget restraints and the need to be seen to be green mean the market is facing up to sizeable pressures.
The latest figures from the International Air Transport Association (IATA) revealed a 6.4% increase in premium international passengers in April, but after a decline of 3.9% in March the brief rise was probably due to an early Easter.
Similarly, the premium market across Europe was up 4.4% in April, but this followed an average decline of 10% over the previous two months. The European business market is more price-sensitive than most due to its predominantly short-haul nature, and IATA attributes the decline to the surge in fuel costs and its impact on travel prices and demand.
Two key factors are affecting the business-travel market, according to Pete Anderson, planning director at eCRM agency Underwired and a former marketing director of Business Traveller Magazine. 'Companies' concerns over their carbon footprints means there is already a move toward reducing travel, while the economy and rising oil prices have made non-essential business travel a thing of the past,' he says.
Other casualties of this trend include the now-defunct business-class-only airline Silverjet and short-haul business-class services such as those offered by British Airways, which cannot compete with the low-cost airlines.
Business travellers do not apply the same principles of frugality to their travel as families on holiday, but, as budgets continue to tighten, more companies are streamlining. Chris Clarke, client services director of B2B marketing services agency P&MM, says the 'snob factor' regarding no-frills flights has been overcome.
According to JC Decaux, 41% of former first and business-class passengers now intend to use no-frills airlines. While this group is downgrading their style, those within it are still travelling for business. This suggests that while the business-travel market is changing it is far from disappearing. Richard Malton, marketing director of JCDecaux Airport, claims the market is resilient. 'We saw a decline in passengers post-9/11, but this picked up very quickly. Businesses know that face-to-face meetings are vital,' he says.
In an apparent paradox, weakness in the US and UK economies means that travelling to emerging markets is now more important to international marketers. Brands from Dubai and Nigeria, for example, are choosing to advertise in many UK airports, a testament to this shift.
For smaller businesses the impact of budget cuts is more direct. Earlier this year Whitbread's Premier Travel Inn reported a surge in bookings, with many business travellers staying in £50 rooms. Dave Cockerill, managing director of data solutions at consumer information company GB Group, says that more corporations are restricting travel to essential stays at minimal cost.
Travel agents report that international travel, particularly from the US, is slow, making the UK market key to capture. Hotel chains have previously focused business and consumer marketing on internet search rankings, but many believe a fresh approach is now necessary.
David Witham, director of marketing and promotions at hotel group Ramada Jarvis, says that the drive to be online and the obsession with Google rankings have driven some in the accommodation industry to overlook the basics.
'Our major focus is to develop close relationships with businesses in the community so we know what pressures they are facing,' he says. 'If you really want to understand your customers, you can't simply rely on electronics.'
Witham claims that the decline in international travel and concern with green marketing means that the Ramada Jarvis chain is holding its own, as businesses choose to hold conferences and meetings closer to home.
However, when travel arrangements are part of an event, conference or incentive, travel agents urge caution, particularly when it comes to no-frills flights.
'Low-cost flights can be a false economy, with all the added extras, lack of flexibility and inconvenient airports,' says P&MM's Chris Clarke. As one senior marketer coming to grips with his company's no-frills travel policy puts it: 'The cost efficiency is somewhat lost when you miss half of your meetings due to flight delays and cancellations.'
Peter Stephens, managing director of DialAFlight, says that while business travellers are definitely becoming more price sensitive, there has not been any great shift toward low-cost airlines. 'In reality, national carriers such as BA are much quicker at dynamically changing prices, and in some cases they can even be cheaper on short-haul routes than the low-cost airlines, once you have added on the additional charges. Plus you get a meal and get to travel between major airports rather than secondary ones,' he adds.
Titus Johnson, Air Berlin's country manager for UK and Ireland, argues that the economic downturn is providing the airline with an opportunity to shine. 'Air Berlin has been particularly successful with corporate clients who are really focused on their travel budget. Unlike many bigger carriers, Air Berlin's threshold for corporate agreements is reasonably low, meaning that SMEs can take advantage of discounted fares,' he says.
Other brands making the most of businesses tightening their purse strings include Japanese-inspired pod hotel Yotel, which offers a place for travellers to work or sleep inside Gatwick and Heathrow Airports. 'The market is under pressure and I expect to see more hotels selling inventory on sites such as Expedia,' says Gerard Greene, chief executive of the hotel group. 'Business travellers won't stop travelling, but I expect to see shorter, more cost-controlled trips.'
Several businesses outsource their travel arrangements to specialist companies which can benefit from group discounts and ensure that all employees stick to company rules. Steven Norris, head of marketing for Flight Centre in the UK, has noted an increase in business-class customers over the past 12 months. 'Businesses need the flexibility of these fares, and our global buying power enables us to access discounted airfares,' he says.
However, for short-haul flights many businesses do not believe the premium is justified - particularly as many argue that the level of service offered by airlines such as BA is not vastly superior to no-frills services.
While business-class lounges have become more design-conscious with the addition of services such as spa treatments and dedicated cocktail bars, the spectre of stressed businessmen shouting into their hands-free kits makes the nearest Starbucks an attractive option.
It's not all bad news for business travellers, however. There is no doubt that airlines are working harder to justify business-class fares. Last month BA decided to provide dedicated business-class check-in desks at Terminal 5, reversing its earlier decision following complaints from business travellers. Meanwhile Virgin Atlantic continues to upgrade its business offerings. Cold comfort for those swapping the executive club for easyJet.