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Wednesday, 1 September 2021

Tech is disrupting business travel + the service industry (but might save the Suez Canal)

Bon voyage to business class? Some companies are ready to consign business travel to history after being forced to switch to digital methods to conduct their cross-border business — and realizing it’s cheaper, better for the environment, and eliminates jetlag. A Bloomberg poll of 45 large firms based in Asia, Europe and the US found that 84% are planning to cut back on travel costs after the pandemic, with more than half expecting to reduce their budgets by 20-40%.

Covid has changed how businesses use tech: Companies are now able to use AR headsets to direct activity on factory floors, drones to tour overseas facilities, and video conferencing software for everything from casual meetings to multi-day conferences. This has allowed them to save bns of USD running their businesses from afar, with little impact on operations.

Guess who isn’t happy about the news: Exclusive lounges. Executive suites. Business class flights. If it seems like industries have an obsession with premium travel, that’s because businesspeople accounted for three-quarters of airlines’ pre-pandemic profits while taking up only 12% of seats, and contributed two-thirds to overall hotel revenues. The industry, which has already been dealt a huge blow by global disruption, lockdowns, travel bans and PCR testing regulations, is now grappling with a shock that according to one estimate could see corporate spending on trips drop by USD 190 bn, or 13.3%, to USD 1.24 tn by 2024.

The effect of this on the sector? “Enormous,” one managing consultant told Bloomberg.

‘Business-leisure’ travel may increasingly become a thing, as airports and airlines pivot to a new class of traveller. Air France is offering more premium seats for holidaymakers, while some of its planes feature a “quick-change” system that allows the size of the business cabin to be reduced if necessary. EgyptAir could be following a similar strategy, going by a recent announcement that travelers can now bid online for upgrades to business class.

From Zoom to QR codes: Tech isn’t just hurting the pockets of the airline industry. Service workers in the US are increasingly finding their jobs under threat as shops and retailers turn to new technologies in response to the pandemic, writes the Financial Times. Rather than being made redundant by a cocktail-serving T-800, businesses are turning to the humble QR code to allow shoppers to buy items or browse stocks using their phone, reducing the need for staff. Restaurant workforces are also being cut down as management uses QR codes to allow diners to check the menu and order food without any human interaction — technology we’ve also been seeing here in Egypt. Cashiers and waiters are among the many who lost their jobs during the pandemic, and the technological shift means that it is unlikely that they will get their jobs back.

Women without college degrees are most susceptible to job losses, if the 2007 financial crisis is anything to go by, with female administrative assistants, telemarketers and payroll clerks being the most affected. A paper from the Philadelphia Federal Reserve suggests that the implications of the pandemic could see a similar trend.

That’s not to say that service workers are lining up to take up these jobs: The threat of the delta virus has pushed many workers in these contact-intensive sectors to opt out of returning to work. QR technology has largely helped bridge that gap, business owners told the FT.

Humans clearly can’t be trusted to navigate the Suez Canal. But can we really depend on HAL? We might find out soon enough. The world’s first self-driving cargo ship will in February embark solo on a 380-km voyage from Tokyo Bay to the coastal city of Ise in Japan, marking the first test of an autonomous tanker in busy shipping lanes, according to Bloomberg. The Japanese public-interest organization backing the trial has big ambitions: it wants half of Japan’s local fleet to be made up of ghost ships crewless ships by 2040, boosting the Japanese economy by USD 9 bn.

It’s a fast-growing sector: Expectations are that the technology will be in practical use by 2025, and could grow to be worth USD 166 bn by 2030. It also represents one solution to the problem of Japan’s dwindling shipping crew workforce, 40% of whom are 55 or older. And since around 70% of shipping accidents are caused by human error, autonomous ships could no doubt have their uses when, say, navigating narrow straits in one of the world’s busiest and most vital waterways.

Think the post-Ever Given bickering was bad? Just wait for the legal chaos caused by a ship crashing itself into the banks of the Suez Canal.

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