I wouldn't look for business travelers to be stampeding back to first class, even after this downturn ends. Management might have a short memory, but management also has more options than it has had in any previous economic cycle.
Low-fare air service is more widespread in the US than at any point in aviation history, and it's growing. Even perpetually-gouged markets like ROC and BUF are getting low-fare air service. Kodak and Xerox helped underwrite the AirTran travel bank at Rochester. 17 of Rochester's 25 largest travel markets (with notable exceptions like Boston, Chicago, and Philadelphia) now have low-fare air service.
And these low-fare carriers are well-managed, high-quality operations which choose their markets carefully. They have FF programs (AirTran's will buy pax tickets on Cartel carriers to places FL doesn't go) and clean new aircraft.
The structure of the aviation market in the US is changing....high-quality low-fare carriers are here to stay. They bring fare relief on many markets, fare relief that corporate travel departments have plenty of motive to use.
I'd look for a moderate return of business travelers to the front cabin as the economy improves. They'll be more and more directed to low-fare carriers on routes where such carriers are available. And they will still have Cartel-carrier first and business class available on international routes where such service is economically viable. Also, Cartel-carrier regional affiliates will continue to be the only option to small cities, unless someone figures out how to apply the low-fare model to regional service.
Don Carty of AA acknowledged as much this week when he told employees that "fundamental changes" are needed at AA. He knows that corporations will be less willing to subsidize leisure travels, and the high cost structures of the Cartel carriers, in coming years--because they'll have choices.
Companies are businesses who must make money and produce value for shareholders. They are not welfare programs for the pre-deregulation cost structures of the Cartel-Six airlines.
Need a new airline paint scheme? Better call Saul! (Bass that is)