Chicago is “lagging” other cities in its recovery from the pandemic, the CEOs of a major airline and hotel chain said Wednesday.
One measure in which it’s lagging is how much airlines are flying. Capacity remains lower in Chicago than average, said Robert Isom, CEO of American Airlines, which has a major hub at O’Hare International Airport.
Chicago is also behind in the return of white-collar workers to offices, much like cities with large tech industries such as Seattle and San Francisco, said Mark Hoplamazian, CEO of Chicago-based Hyatt Hotels.
Hoplamazian said the recovery of tourism and travel in Chicago might be particularly hurt by slower international travel and the city’s historic dependence on large conventions, which have returned but aren’t yet back in full swing.
“We’ve seen other cities come back more strongly,” he said. A short time later, in comments directed at the new leader of Choose Chicago, the city’s official tourism arm, he said: “You’ve got your work cut out for you.”
Hoplamazian and Isom made the comments at a downtown lunch hosted by the Executives’ Club of Chicago. The airline and hospitality industries, battered by the pandemic, have faced the task of ramping up staff and operations after pandemic cuts, but the two CEOs said demand for travel is returning.
Tourists and leisure travelers have been driving demand, but Hoplamazian said Hyatt is seeing more corporations and associations booking hotels for gatherings. He expects group travel will reach pre-pandemic levels by the end of the year.
Also growing is blended work and leisure trips. Travelers are extending work trips into long weekends, Hoplamazian said.
“’Bleisure’ is real,” Isom said, referring to a blend of business and leisure.
Still, both industries have faced hiring challenges. For airlines, a pilot shortage that was looming before the pandemic was exacerbated by retirements and limited hiring and training of new pilots during the pandemic, Isom said. American Airlines has about 150 smaller, regional planes grounded because pilots aren’t available to fly them.
Corporate tech and digital workers have also been in short supply, Hoplamazian said. He pinned it on increasing competition as more companies relied on digital tools during the pandemic, and as tech companies such as Amazon and Salesforce grew.
Another hurdle for American this summer will be orders of new Boeing planes that haven’t yet been delivered. American would add several international destinations if it had the planes, Isom said.
Despite the pandemic challenges, Isom said American is heavily invested in Chicago and O’Hare. A massive overhaul is underway at O’Hare partially funded by airline fees.
“We have to have a supply of passengers who will actually work that cost out over time,” Isom said.