Chattanooga businesses relaxing employee travel restrictions, but virtual meetings may ground some fliers

Staff file photo / A United Airlines aircraft taxies on the runway at Chattanooga Metropolitan Airport.

McKee Foods Corp. this week relaxed a restrictive business travel policy put in during the pandemic as the Collegedale snack cake-maker opened up non-essential flights to vaccinated employees.

But the company and others are questioning if business travel will ever again reach the high-flying days before the pandemic as Zoom meetings have become common practice over the past year.

"I suspect we will be nowhere near pre-pandemic travel numbers for awhile and may never return to them fully," said Mike Gloekler, corporate communications manager for the company that employs 3,400 workers in Chattanooga and 6,400 overall.

Gloekler said that McKee and other businesses have become well-acquainted with distance meetings, online conferences and workshops and even virtual product demonstrations.

Bill Helsper of Murphy, North Carolina, who was flying Thursday for business at Chattanooga Metropolitan Airport, said the pharmaceutical packaging company for which he works just reopened travel in the past few weeks.

But in addition to saving money on travel, people have found they can do business virtually, he said.

"It's more of a learned behavior," Helsper said. "I don't think we'll ever turn back like it was."

Delta Air Lines CEO Ed Bastion told the Associated Press earlier this year that maybe business travel by the second half of the year will be 25% to 50% of what it was.

"A nice step up, but still it's going to take some time," he said. "Small business is picking up faster than large business." Delta historically has carried the most passengers in and out of Chattanooga and helped drive what had been six consecutive years of record boardings.

United Airlines, which also flies out of Chattanooga, last month posted a $1.36 billion loss in the first quarter and it will need a rebound in lucrative and international travel before it returns to profitability, the AP reported.

Chattanooga-based CBL Properties, which is one of the nation's largest mall operators, said its empl0yees currently are traveling regionally based on their comfort level. The level of travel is far more than this time last year but less than in 2019, said Stacey Keating, the company's senior director of public relations.

"We expect that both CBL business travel into Chattanooga and our employees' travel will pick up by the end of summer," she said.

David Nichols, president of Nichols Fleet Equipment in Chattanooga, said that while the company practiced plenty of Zoom meetings over the past year, he still prefers meeting customers when practical and possible.

"I'm old school. I prefer face to face," he said, adding there's obviously a place for virtual meetings.

Nichols, whose company installs and customizes truck-mounted equipment and this week revealed a plans for a major expansion to the Centre South Riverport, said sales people are getting around much easier today than just a few months ago.

The Tennessee Valley Authority has resumed more employee travel but spokeswoman Malinda Hunter said the federal utility is still restricting most air flights.

"Due to health risks, non-essential travel is discouraged," she said.

Chattanooga businesses dependent on business travel are looking for a rebound.

Mitch Patel, president and CEO of the Chattanooga hotel chain Vision Hospitality Group, said a large percentage of its business historically has been the individual business traveler.

During the pandemic, leisure travel has been and remains robust, he said.

"We have seen the business traveler start to return slowly, mainly because of the offices allowing the return to work," Patel said. "We are looking forward to seeing the continued growth in the business travel segment and striking a balance between the mid-week and weekend business."

Gloekler said McKee had severely curtailed business travel early last year, cutting it down to only what was absolutely necessary to keep operations running.

"As for incoming traffic from vendors, we applied the same severe restrictions," he said. "Travel restrictions on our company jets also were limited to absolute operational necessity, and passengers were physically distanced and masked at all times. Additionally, our jets' air circulation systems were modified to maximize the reduction of risk of transmission from person to person."

But he said the new relaxed policy was effective immediately.

Contact Mike Pare at mpare@timesfreepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @MikePareTFP.