Travel Managers Have Complex, Complicated Relationships with Airline Partners

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by: Jen Bankard, Education Specialist, ACTE Global

In Fall 2017, ACTE hosted a series of sessions for travel managers at local education events in Chicago,  Washington D.C. and Santa Clara. Titled Corporate Air Travel: The Love/Breakup Letter Exercise, the sessions gave travel managers an opportunity to move beyond traditional roundtable discussions and emerge from the experience with tangible, creative lessons and takeaways. Considering BTN’s Corporate Travel Top 100 companies for 2017 spent between $90 million and $900 million on air travel, positive relationships between corporate travel managers and their airline suppliers are imperative for the success of travel programmes and the safety and satisfaction of business travellers—and these are relationships ACTE is committed to facilitating.

 The Love/Breakup Letter Exercise comes from the book Universal Methods of Design: 100 Ways to Research Complex Problems, Develop Innovative Ideas, and Design Effective Solutions. This exercise is rooted in design thinking, a methodology to identify positive and negative attributes/elements/features in different brands, products, companies or events. These sessions helped participants identify both the positive and negative attributes of corporate air travel.

Travel managers were asked to engage in discussions with one another about their air programmes and, at the end of a discussion, write both a love letter AND a breakup letter that is reflective of their relationships with their airline supplier partners.

Questions to consider for the love letter included:

  • What do you love the most?
  • How are airlines meeting your program’s needs and your travellers’ needs?
  • Was your relationship ever tested, but had a positive outcome?
  • Why are you still “together” today?
  • What does the future look like?

Questions to consider for the breakup letter included:

  • What do you hate?
  • What is missing from the relationship?
  • What are the pain points?
  • What is causing friction?
  • What needs aren’t being met?
  • Why are you still together today?
  • Why are you breaking up?

The resulting love and breakup letters written were insightful and demonstrated that, while there are many positives, there is also lots of room for improvement. Complaints ranged from the ever-shrinking seat size and old equipment to challenges with account managers and customer service. One group of travel managers bluntly stated in their breakup letter, “You’ve let yourself go…we’ve had it with baggage fees and change fees.” Another group was a bit more tactful, writing “We wish you created a consistent approach to fare rules throughout the globe. We are global companies and need to be able to create clear policies for our employees with a consistent technology set up.” Ultimately, most groups wrote that they were staying together “for the sake of the kids”: Travel managers need airlines because travellers need to fly, leaving managers to make the best of a situation that is not always ideal.

But many of the love letters highlighted the attributes of a healthy buyer-supplier relationship, showering praise upon their air partners, especially those that have “taken the effort to keep up your appearance” and “making up for your mistakes and making things right.” Other compliments included an appreciation when airlines and TMC’s work together, when data is accurate and easily accessible, and when the relationship can adjust based on ever-changing needs. Many travel managers were excited about the future, especially as it related to mobile technology and apps.

Regardless of whether it was a love or breakup letter, a few themes emerged that airlines should take note of. As with most relationships in life, either personal or professional, it all comes down to communication. Travel managers need to communicate their needs, and airlines need to listen. Even if all the needs can’t be met, they need to engage in meaningful dialogue on a consistent basis, in both good times and in bad. Travel managers need to feel like their programme matters, regardless of size and spend.

ACTE would like to thank Southwest Airlines for their support of these buyer-only sessions.


Jen Bankard


Jen Bankard, Education Specialist, ACTE Global

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