Business flyers make profits soar

Frequent business travellers are a big earner for airlines. But the group’s varying interests mean micro-marketing is key to future growth. By John Clemens. John Clemens is chairman of Continental Research.

Airlines, even in these days of mass travel, depend on their business customers. It is business flyers who have to book at short notice, who have to travel at specific times, who travel frequently and who often need to change flights, therefore requiring open tickets. For these reasons they provide the airlines with large sums of additional revenue for every seat they fill. Knowing just how many British business flyers there are, and what kind of people they are can help airlines target this important group more effectively. Is it a homogeneous group, or is it a mix of distinct groups, each with different needs, priorities and values?

An important discriminator for airlines is the frequency of flying booked. All business flyers are valuable, but the frequent business traveller is the one all airlines want to attract.

Chart one, based on a sample of over 14,500 regular business flyers, shows there are more than 3 million flyers, but close to 2.5 million make only a few trips a year. The really valuable travellers, those who fly over six times a year, number just 700,000 – about 1.5 per cent of the adult population. Only 300,000 make over ten flights a year.

And it is the frequent flyers who are more likely to travel regularly in first or business class. Only one in four infrequent business flyers – those making five or less trips annually – regularly books business or first class tickets, but this rises to almost 40 per cent for flyers who take over ten flights a year. Overall, there are about 850,000 British flyers who normally book a business or first class seat. This market is gold dust to the airlines.

Perhaps surprisingly, flying business or first class is not much more common for long-haul than for short. As chart two shows, about a quarter of those flying only to Europe, about a quarter of those flying long-haul and about a quarter of those flying both to Europe and long-haul normally book a business or first class seat. This indicates that the class flown is more likely to be the result of company policy than individual choice.

Most travellers flying a few miles to Europe would choose economy if they were paying themselves, while many would choose business class for long-haul flights if they could afford it and were paying their own way.

Chart three shows that both the business/first and the economy class travellers are not homogeneous groups. While compared with the rest of the UK population they tend to be quite affluent, only one in seven regular business flyers has a household income which exceeds 40,000. Members of the largest group of business flyers have incomes of between 20,000 and 40,000.

All kinds of people fly for business. Here, however, status does pay to some extent: the more you earn, the more likely your company is to pay for you to travel business class. Whereas only one in four of the lowest income group – those with incomes of under 20,000 – travel business class, this rises to over a third of those earning in excess of 60,000.

The diversity of people flying is perhaps best indicated by their newspaper habits. What is the most popular newspaper among all business flyers? By a short lead it is The Sun, with the Daily Mail in close second. This changes among frequent flyers, for whom the most popular paper is The Daily Telegraph, read by over 30 per cent, closely followed by the Daily Mail and The Times.

Business and first class passengers don’t have dissimilar tastes – differences in reading habits are more a function of flying frequency than of the class travelled.

The analysis highlights how this market – business flyers – is made up of many groups with different tastes, incomes and flying habits.

It is not one homogeneous group, but a mass of sub-markets, each of which will repay different kinds of marketing and loyalty incentives. Airlines have good access to their own passengers, less to those of other airlines.

The arrival of the new, massive lifestyle databases enables airlines to analyse their markets and to look at lifestyles, media habits and flight patterns in new ways. Micro-marketing at a personal level will grow over the next few years and will take an ever-increasing share of airline marketing budgets.

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