Hitting rock bottom
While there are still some mixed messages, it is becoming increasingly clear that the bottom fell out of business travel in the last three months of 2008.
Two of the latest set of figures from the UK Guild of Travel Management Companies (GTMC) and the monthly Premium Traffic Monitor from the International Air Transport Association (IATA) seem to confirm this.
According to the Guild, which represents most of Britain's leading travel management companies, 2008 was okay until the last three months when there was a "marked downturn" in the number of bookings handled by its members.
Taken over the year, the GTMC could report quite accurately that the number of bookings through 2008 went up by more than a million, a rise of 8%. But the last three months were marked by a drop in both air and car hire bookings.
Philip Carlisle, the Guild's ceo, remarked: "When we published our third-quarter transaction totals late last year, we warned that the fourth-quarter figures would paint a very different picture.
"Given the subsequent speed and scale of the downturn, the fact that total transactions ended the year eight per cent higher is frankly remarkable."
But if Mr Carlisle's members were disconcerted by the speed and depth with which the recession hit them, IATA has been under no such illusions.
It latest Premium Traffic Monitor covering December 2008 showed a steep and continuing decline from its November survey. In December, the Association said, premium traffic dropped by 13.3% compared with December 2007. In November it had reported an 11.5% drop compared with the same period ion 2007.
These are substantial decreases which are not redeemed by a similar rise in economy traffic. In December, IATA said, economy traffic also dropped by 5.3%. In November the decline was 6%.
If the figures are studied regionally, premium traffic in the Far East fell by 25.1% in December 2008, in the Pacific region it fell by 19.7%, including a 17.3% drop on routes to the Far East and Europe.
The inescapable conclusion here is that businesses are not switching from premium to economy as much as expected. They are simply not travelling.
Again IATA, like the GTMC, is moved to comment on the speed with which this has happened. It describes the fall in traffic in the last four months of 2008 as a "dramatic decline."
More ominously, IATA spells out what this decline in traffic means in term of airline revenue.
"The extreme weakness of demand combined with an inability to shrink capacity to match is now causing fares and yields to decline," it said.
"Even the less price sensitive premium segment of the market is facing excess capacity to the extent that average premium yields began to fall in November. By November average yields (excluding fuel surcharges) were around 6% down on levels the previous year.
"As a result we estimate that premium revenues in December had fallen to some 20% below year earlier levels. In normal years premium passengers make up around 8% of passenger numbers but 15-20% of revenues.
"So a 20% loss in premium revenues will in itself cut 3% or $15bn from the airline industry's annual revenues.
IATA may not be an organisation which is often linked with optimism or even looking on the brighter side. But these are figures to cause deep consternation in any of the major airlines which see long haul premium travel as a prime source of income.
To rub home the seriousness of the situation, IATA reported that premium traffic across the North Atlantic dropped by 8.8% in December after a 9% fall in November. Within Europe, premium travel was down 16.3%. Again there was no relief through claiming that travellers were going economy as that fell in the two markets by 2-4%.
So European airlines like BA, Air France KLM and Lufthansa are seeing both their most lucrative passengers and their most lucrative markets in decline. No wonder the financial figures for the first two are not as good as they hoped.
But the figures also pose the question as to just how far companies have stopped or cut travel. It seems to be substantially and to have been done with amazing speed. One comfort of a recession or a downturn is that industry figures always say that companies will always travel, that they have to go on travelling for the sake of their business.
There are rather alarming signs here in the IATA figures that companies have cut far more than usual, that essential travel is a far smaller proportion of all travel than might have been expected. Only the next set of figures will show whether we have hit rock bottom.