‘Bleisure’ Travel Is The Talk Of The Airline Industry. Southwest Wonders If It’s For Real.

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The new thing in the airline industry is “bleisure” passengers who combine business and leisure.

Presumably, they travel at midday instead of the start and end of the day; travel midweek instead of Friday and Monday; fly to Bozeman to work remotely and also ski, and sit in Delta Comfort or Main Cabin Extra or United Premium Plus, because they can.

Emerging trends in bleisure travel – also known as “blended travel” — were discussed on the American, Delta and United third-quarter earnings call this month, and seemed to be viewed as a sign that the pandemic has led to a long-term change in travel patterns.

Southwest is not so sure. Its executives see the trends, but aren’t quite ready to conclude that they portend a long-term change.

“I’ve personally been slow to decide that we have a new trend, and that [it’s] the trend for a long period of time,” Southwest CEO Robert Jordan said Thursday, in answer to a reporter’s question about whether the carrier is seeing the same move towards bleisure travel that other carriers see.

“The leisure trends are really strong,” Jordan said. “The business trends have come out of that dip and they are strengthening. So our revenue trends overall are really strong. They’re strengthening further in the fourth quarter. We think they’ll strengthen further in 2023. So that’s the focus versus trying to understand in exact detail whether some of these things are forever.

“The leisure strength has been with us for a long time now coming out of Covid,” he said. The expanded travel windows for leisure travel – for instance, its continuation into September – is “noticeable,” he said. “You can see them, and they’re real. What I think we want to be careful with is trying to decide that this is forever. “

As for business travel, Southwest saw it start to rise, decline in July and August, then resume growing in September. Andrew Watterson, chief operating officer, said, “After every recession, business travel demand changes, behavior changes a little bit. So we should expect this time for it to change as well.”

Southwest still sees more leisure travel in July than in September. “The surprise finding is there’s more leisure travel in September than it used to be,” Watterson said.

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“That does tend to dampen some level of seasonality, but you’re still going to have that seasonality,” he said. “It’s a welcome development, [but] but they’re still going to have peak season and off-peak season.”

Where did the term “bleisure” comes from?

According to Wikipedia, “the term bleisure was first published in 2009 by the Future Laboratory as part of their biannual Trend Briefing written by writer Jacob Strand, then a future forecaster working for The Future Laboratory, and journalist and futurologist Miriam Rayman.”

In the airline industry, talk of bleisure and blended travel ramped up in 2022. Vasu Raja, chief commercial officer at American Airlines, was first to talk regularly about “blended travel.” Raja’s most focused and thorough public discussion of blended travel came at the Skift Global Forum in September.

There, he noted that airlines have long divided passengers into two categories, business and leisure, leading the carriers to bifurcate strategies for pricing, seating and schedules. But during the pandemic, he said, the distinctions became blurred. “Business and leisure is itself a nomenclature thing,” he said.

“So much of what the airlines have done over the years [is that] we could go and send the world a low fare or a fast schedule,” Raja said. “That created a natural segmentation….“People [saw] themselves as business and or leisure [because] that is the only choice we have given.”

Historically, a business flyer might take an early New York-Chicago flight for a meeting and fly back the same night with only carry-on baggage, he said. A “leisure” passenger has been someone who flies to Orlando with a spouse and children and checks luggage.

Today, a “blended” passenger flies to Bozeman, Mont., “for pleasure,” which actually means “take conference calls on Friday and go hiking on Saturday,” Raja said. Today, he said, nearly 50% of American revenues result from blended travel, up from about 25% before the pandemic.

Blended travel’s pandemic emergence was encouraged by increased use of Zoom and video conferencing, enabling an increase in remote work. Increased purchase of premium seats has also come to be seen part of the bleisure trend, although it could also be related to diminished pitch in coach cabins.

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