Executives aren't just flying more. They're also flying farther. According to the latest estimate from the Global Business Travel Association, business travel spending is expected to jump 12.5% to $36.7 billion in 2014.
Maybe you're one of those who'll spend more time in the air this year. Cheap flights probably won't do you much good, and family travel will have to wait. So which are the best airlines for you? In 2013, rating specialist Skytrax ranked the best airlines in North America. These three stand out for offering particularly attractive business class options:
1. Air Canada (TSX:AC.B)
Overall Skytrax rating: 4 stars
Business class rating: 4 stars
Air Canada has been operating consistently in North America since 1965. Today, the airline serves 178 destinations with 196 aircraft, including its Rouge subsidiary, which targets vacation destinations around the globe. Skytrax gives the airline particularly high marks (4.5 stars) for its washroom and Internet services at its airport lounges, and for the comfort of its seats on long-haul flights and the quality of its meals on short-haul trips.
Financially, Air Canada's post-reorganization expansion efforts have taken a toll on free cash flow, which ran negative in 2013 and could do so again this year. Yet the investments could pay off in new growth fueled by added seats and more modern aircraft, including four new wide-body Boeing 777 jets.
2. Delta Air Lines (NYSE:DAL)
Overall Skytrax rating: 3 stars
Business class rating: 4 stars for long-haul flights / 3.5 stars for short-haul flights
Amid bankruptcy and a contentious merger with Northwest in 2008, Delta has flown millions of passengers since commencing operations in June 1929, just months before the beginning of the Great Depression. Today, the airline serves 247 mainline destinations with 743 aircraft. Skytrax gives the carrier high marks (4.5 stars) for the comfort of its seats on long-haul flights. Delta also gets good scores for the general comfort and quality of Internet provided in its business class lounges. In-flight meals on long-haul flights also score well, according to Skytrax's survey.
Financially, catering to top-tier business travelers has paid off for Delta. Domestic unit revenue improved 6.6% in the fourth quarter and net profit more than doubled for the full year. What's more, in February, when most carriers were suffering from weather cancellations, Delta still managed a 4% increase in unit revenue.
3. United Continental (NASDAQ:UAL)
Overall Skytrax rating: 3 stars
Business class rating: 3 stars
One of the oldest U.S. carriers, United has been flying since 1927. Thanks to a 2010 merger with Continental, today the airline boasts one of the world's largest route networks, including 373 mainline destinations served by 702 aircraft. Skytrax gives United above-average marks (4 stars) for the comfort of its business class seats and the quality of its inflight entertainment on long-haul flights.
Financially, United reported a 34% boost in adjusted fourth quarter earnings per share. A strong performance, no doubt, but aided by weak Q4 results the year prior and lower jet fuel prices. More recently, United lowered revenue guidance to account for weather cancellations in the first quarter. Peers haven't followed suit, leaving investors to wonder if United is simply having trouble managing the fundamentals of its business.