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How to Choose the Best Airline for Your Business Travel

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When booking business travel, there’s more to consider than just the cost of flights. Today, TPG Contributor Richard Kerr walks you through the top factors that should determine which airline you choose.

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about business travel as I compare premium cabins on United, Delta and American for flights within the States. It helps to look at the different airline products side by side and get a sense of the respective value they offer, but you must then parlay that information into a decision about which airline best suits your needs.

In this post, I’ll build on my previous analysis and discuss several more factors you should take into account when planning your own business travel.

Not all business flights are created equal.
Not all business flights are created equal.

The question of which airline is best for business travel does not have a one-size-fits-all answer. We each have our own preferences and circumstances that can send us in opposite directions when choosing a business-class product.

There are four major factors to consider when you’re trying to choose an airline:

  1. Price
  2. Convenience
  3. Loyalty program and rewards
  4. Elite status benefits

Let’s take a look at each one to help you figure out their relative importance.

Cost is an important aspect of selecting your airline, but shouldn't be the only factor. Photo courtesy of Shutterstock.
Cost is an important consideration in choosing an airline, but isn’t the only one. Image courtesy of Shutterstock.

1. Price

Many businesses think choosing an airline (or anything, for that matter) is all about the bottom line, and that the cheapest fare wins every time. However, while price is obviously an important aspect of your decision, you shouldn’t necessarily go with the cheapest ticket.

My older brother is a CPA for one of the largest accounting firms in the world. Business-class tickets to London or Sydney are simply billed to the client. In his case, price is almost a non-factor when choosing flights. On the other hand, my younger brother is a music minister at an up-and-coming church in Charleston, SC. When he has to purchase airfare for a conference, training or retreat, price is nearly the only thing that matters.

I encourage a holistic approach when considering the cost of travel. If you work for a Fortune 500 or other large company with guaranteed traffic volume, your rates are often negotiated. If you own a small business, you should set and monitor a quarterly or annual travel budget. It’s important to ensure you’re staying within that budget, and to make sure you’re maximizing your return on spending with credit card rewards and loyalty program earnings. You can also poll your employees and lean on your own travel experiences to decide if it’s worth spending a little extra for more convenient flight times or better onboard products.

When paying for your flights, a business credit card has several benefits and built-in tools to help you or your office’s travel manager stay organized. My top choice for airfare is the Enhanced Business Gold Rewards Card from American Express OPEN, which earns 3 Membership Rewards points per dollar in your choice of one category out of five options, including airfare purchased directly from airlines. You’ll also earn 2 points per dollar in the other categories, with bonus points limited to the first $100,000 spent in each category. Other features like baggage insurance and OPEN Savings make this card a solid choice for most businesses.

If you’re already set on a specific airline, a co-branded card like the United MileagePlus Explorer Business Card or Citi AAdvantage Executive World Elite MasterCard offer perks like free checked bags and 2 miles per dollar on purchases with the airline. You might also consider a card that earns transferable points — the Amex Business Gold Card is a good option if you prefer Delta, while the Ink Plus Business Card is a strong choice for United flyers, and the Starwood Preferred Guest Business Credit Card offers good value for American Airlines loyalists.

The Business Gold Rewards Card from American Express OPEN offers 3 points per dollar on all airfare purchased directly from airlines.

2. Convenience

The airline you select for business travel should make life easy for you and your team. Consider the following factors when making your decision:

Routes — A large route network would be one of my top factors when choosing an airline. If international travel is necessary, I want to book one ticket and travel via codeshares so I can check in just once to my final destination, and not worry about missed connections on separate tickets or rechecking baggage. Nonstop is always preferable for business travelers, so help your employees out and book a nonstop United flight even if you’re a Delta die-hard and don’t mind connecting in Atlanta.

Studying route maps is the first thing I do when looking at a new business destination.

Airline product — The highs and lows of the legacy carriers are well known, but make sure you look at other options like Alaska, JetBlue, Southwest, Virgin America and Frontier. Company morale is often one of the most ignored aspects of the workplace. Do what you can to make sure you and your employees aren’t dreading a weekly 3-hour flight on a CRJ-700 when a comfortable JetBlue A320 carrying live satellite TV flies the same route.

An airline’s hard product is most important on long-haul flights. A completely lie-flat Japan Airlines Sky Suite versus an angled lie-flat American legacy plane can make a huge difference on a 14-hour transpacific flight. Make sure you research which configuration you’ll be flying in order to be as comfortable as possible (or to at least be mentally prepared for a flight with few amenities).

Japan Airlines Sky Suite has been the most comfortable business class seat for me.
Japan Airlines Sky Suite has been the most comfortable business-class seat for me.

X-Factors — Customer service, on-time performance and airport locations should also be a part of your convenience equation. Nothing makes me switch airlines faster than constant delays, lost baggage and apathetic customer service when the airline is at fault. If I’m traveling on business, I want to get from A to B as efficiently as possible so I can minimize my time away from home.

3. Loyalty Programs 

Your mileage balance can pay large dividends on business travel. If you know your travel budget and you fly airlines with revenue-based frequent flyer programs (like Southwest, Delta and United), then you should be able to estimate your returns once you have a proper valuation for the miles you’ll earn. Different miles are worth different amounts, so naturally, there’s good reason to choose an airline with valuable rewards. For that reason, I would have a hard time choosing Delta as my business airline on the basis of the SkyMiles program.

You deserve the best, but are you always getting it with Delta SkyMiles?
You deserve the best, but you won’t always get it with Delta SkyMiles.

In addition to personal accounts, most airlines now offer business rewards programs like Delta SkyBonus and American Airlines Business Extra. At the core, each of these business frequent flyer programs operates similarly. A single, centralized account is created for each registered business. Employees of that business can enter the separate business frequent flyer number on their reservations in addition to their personal frequent flyer number, and the business is credited with all revenue spent.

4. Elite Status Benefits

Airline status and its benefits can certainly make the road warrior’s travels a little less weary. TPG contributor Eric Rosen did a comprehensive comparison on which airline elite status is the best, and I agree with his conclusion. The winner for most valuable status is probably American Airlines. The flying requirements are in line with the industry; the airline hasn’t instituted any spending requirements; and when you reach the upper tiers, you get some great benefits like complimentary upgrades, super valuable systemwide upgrades and decent mileage-earning bonuses starting at the middle tier status.

JetBlue's current status challenge seems to be open to everyone.
JetBlue’s current status challenge seems to be open to everyone.

If you don’t think you’re going to fly enough to earn status with an airline, or don’t want to switch airlines because you’ll lose your elite benefits, make sure to investigate status match and status challenge options. Just recently JetBlue offered a new status challenge to earn Mosaic status by spending $1,250 in 90 days with the airline.

Airline Rankings for the Business Traveler

I’ve taken the above four factors in addition to related considerations and ranked each airline on a grade scale from A-F. When ranking, I looked at each factor from a business traveler’s perspective.

Airline Business Loyalty Program Onboard Product Route Network Status Benefits Loyalty Program Price Co-branded Credit Card Benefits
American B B A A B+ B B+
Delta A B A B C- B B
United C C A A B+ B B
JetBlue C A B C C A B
Southwest C D B D B A A (for Companion Pass)
Virgin America C A D C B- B C

Taking the above rankings, let’s hit the highs and lows of each airline for the business traveler:

American — With the largest route network for business travelers, you can conveniently go most places you need. The in-flight experience in business/first class is satisfactory (fantastic on the A321T), and new planes are being added to the fleet regularly. There’s plenty of value gained with AAdvantage, and the ability to earn 10% of redeemed miles back with the Citi AAdvantage Platinum Select MasterCard (and others) is a great cardholder benefit. I’d like to see the Business Extra program improved.

Delta — With the best on-time performance (er, fluff built in the schedule) Delta business travelers have the most confidence in arriving on schedule. The business class in-flight product is improving quickly, and the Skybonus program is the best out there among business loyalty programs. The major downfall is the SkyMiles program, and all the baggage that comes along with it.

United — The PerksPlus program for businesses is lacking, and the onboard business-class product is underwhelming, but the MileagePlus program is still lucrative (albeit not as much as before). The right co-branded card can earn you United Club access or a 50,000 mile sign-up bonus. Star Alliance opens most worldwide destinations up to United flyers, and elites are treated very well.

JetBlue — JetBlue is about the most enjoyable experience I’ve had flying domestically. Mint Business Class on a transcon for a reasonable price is pure bliss. TrueBlue won’t blow your socks off, but you can get value out of the JetBlue Card from American Express (until the co-brand agreement is discontinued on December 31st). The limitation here is the route network, which doesn’t offer road warriors as many nonstop flights.

Southwest — No frills flying at a (mostly) affordable price is what Southwest offers business travelers. I think there are as many lovers of the Southwest experience as there are haters. If you’re a worker who wears an elite lapel pin and monitors the upgrade list, you won’t be looking to Southwest. Rapid Rewards and the Southwest Airlines Rapid Rewards Premier Card card can help you earn a 2 for 1 companion pass, meaning small business owners may love Southwest when it comes to the bottom line. Still, the very limited international route network hurts international business travelers.

Virgin America — There’s a great onboard product and valuable miles for partner redemptions. Virgin America’s route network is small; loyalty benefits in the Elevate program are average; and there’s only a run-of-the-mill co-branded credit card issued by an uninspiring Comenity Bank. If you fly the same route month after month serviced by VX, it could be right for you.

Which Do You Choose?

I am quite jealous of the private business traveler today. Since I’m a government employee, 95% of the time the airline for my travel is chosen for me via contracted city pairs and the Fly America Act. It seems each flight is in a different alliance, which makes pooling miles difficult. I also can’t fly the foreign carrier on the most direct route, and must connect on the US airline. I also have to use my government travel credit card for payment, meaning I earn zero miles on all airfare purchases.

With those thoughts in my mind, every time I travel for business, I often think of the above four categories and how differently I would pick my business flights if I had the ability. Don’t focus on just the ticket price, convenience, loyalty program or status when choosing your airline. Factor all four areas into your decision and hopefully your business flying will become as enjoyable, profitable, efficient and beneficial as possible.

How would you rank US airlines in terms of business travel?

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