Business travelers hit the road

| 12/7/2001

Since Sept. 11, more and more U.S. companies are taking to the road instead of the air. Government and airline security measures put into place since have added both time and stress to air travel, and some companies have placed restrictions on travel by air, for both economic and security reasons.

Wheels Inc., an Illinois-based fleet management company, conducted an informal survey of 34 Fortune 500 companies to study their travel plans. The survey found that 14 companies had restricted air travel and six had strongly urged the use of cars rather than planes.

"The business rule of thumb used to be if a trip could be completed by car in five hours or less, you drove," says Joe McDonald, Wheels' director of account management. "We used to figure that five hours was the break-even point when you consider the time to commute to the airport, waiting to board, flying, picking up luggage and rental car, and driving to the destination. And that was before security lines at airports got quite so long."

McDonald says it is generally less expensive to drive when you follow the five-hour margin, based on an estimated driving cost for rental cars at 32.5 cents per mile. "In some cases, it is quite a bit more expensive to fly."

For example: a trip from New York to Washington, DC, at $75 on the road compared to $227 in the air and Atlanta to Charlotte at $511 by air and $80 on the road.

Of those who decided against flying, 66 percent drove instead - with 38.5 percent of those driving on trips of at least 250 miles. The same 66 percent chose to handle some business by conference call and 25 percent cancelled meetings.

The trend of taking business on the road has not equated to big bucks for car rental agencies. Agencies say they have been similarly impacted as the airline industry.

"Since Sept. 11, our rentals have dropped sharply," says Paula Stifter, a spokesperson for Hertz rental agency. "Ninety percent of our business is done at airports."

She says it's difficult to tell if companies are actually driving more. "We've noticed that rentals are up at our suburban locations, which could include business travel. But, it isn't clear."

Christy Conrad, a spokesperson with Enterprise Rent-A-Car, says the surge from business travel is a little clearer. "We've been flat since Sept. 11, but we've noticed an increase in local rentals, which means the renter returns the vehicle to the location rented. It does appear that businesses are renting more."

Both said their companies are slowly recovering from the level business dropped to in mid-September. "We have a long way to go to recover fully," says Conrad. "Air travel is very important to our business."
--Keith Goble