The newly released Airline Quality Report indicates that airline performance improved in 2008 for the first time in five years. The study, based on U.S. Department of Transportation data and surveys of 5,000 frequent travelers, declares that all 17 airlines improved in all four categories (baggage handling, on-time arrivals, denied boardings and customer complaints) compared to their record-low showing in 2007. That’s a rare occurrence, according to the study.

The report warned fliers, however, to "take the good news with a grain of salt" because the troubled economy has reduced passenger count. In a news release, one of the report’s authors, Dean Headley of Wichita State University, said, "We know the system performs better when it's less stressed by high passenger volume," as it did after 9/11.

But we might wonder if technology is playing a role in reducing stress on the travel system, as well. Over the past year, companies across America increasingly have adopted new systems like Unified Communications, Live Meeting,and Microsoft Office SharePoint, which are the next best things to being there. Instead of traveling to meetings, managers can employ these technical advances to virtually meet face to face, exchange documents and collaborate on projects. At the same time, companies have been liberalizing policies and/or attitudes toward employees working from home. As a result, corporations are becoming more adjusted to meeting on screen rather than in person, and that comfort level carries over to travel alternatives. The need for a portion of the once standard business-trip schedule may be diminishing.

If the trend continues, we could see a win-win for the airlines and businesses alike. Those who do need to travel for major conferences, shows or other events could encounter better and more reliable service at the airport. Those who can meet just as effectively online can stay home, save travel costs and accomplish just as much or more, without the downtime inherent in travel days.

(Disclosure: Microsoft is an Airfoil client and we also pay for their technology in our business operations.)

–Steve Friedman

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