For those who remember traveling pre-9/11, it was enough just to remember your passport (and head pillow) before boarding a plane. After 9/11, travelers were inundated with new security measures that limited what to carry on board, and even what to wear to avoid the dreaded pat-downs. Now, with the pandemic still causing havoc around the world, there’s a whole new set of rules and regulations that mostly involve COVID tests, vaccine verification, quarantine requirements and more. And with each country comes a new set of restrictions, making cross-border travel particularly convoluted, challenging, and ever-changing. Business travelers must be always on high alert, and that requires support from everyone along the value chain. While it might be easy to point fingers when messages are crossed, the bottom line is that the corporation – with the help of the airline and travel management company (TMC) partner – must take responsibility for a smooth traveler experience by offering up-to-date information and the effective tools to access it.
Long lines at COVID screenings, waiting for results, retrieving proper documentation – all while trying to board a scheduled flight – is nothing less than nerve wracking. But is it worth it? Most travelers say that it is – that the satisfaction of seeing business colleagues, sales prospects, friends and family outweigh the hassles of international travel. Travel managers report that road warriors are anxious to return to domestic and international travel. A recent GBTA survey (May 2021) found that three in four (74%) travel buyer and procurement respondents said their employees are ‘willing’ or ‘very willing’ to travel for business in the current environment. Corporate travel managers simply must remind all employees to check the rules of travel engagement often, and most definitely before they head to the airport to ensure compliance with changing rules.
Lack of a Central Data Source Baffling
While many travel management companies and travel-risk providers quickly stepped up to provide dashboards and links to external sites, there is no one central source for pandemic-related travel requirements. Instead, there are myriad websites run by government entities, trade associations, travel providers and others that attempt to stay up to date on entry rules for hundreds of destinations. Each country has its own conditions for entry, each airline its own rules, and each airport its own procedures. Some destinations require negative PCR tests, others vaccination documentation, many still enforce quarantines (2-14 days) while still others require all of the above - or some of the above. Some airports have biometric scanning and mobile check-in, while others still require stamped paper documents. Some have PCR testing locations onsite while others require you to find testing sites elsewhere. Some destinations require vaccination status – but only for certain types of vaccines. And if you’re connecting, you never know what you’re going to get as you make your way through the airport.
Chances are if you’re a business traveler you take a lot upon yourself to understand the new rules of travel and call the airlines for guidance as well. But travelers should also be able to rely on their own company for guidance throughout the trip process – from the planning phase to moving throughout the destination and heading home. Corporations in turn rely on their TMC partners to keep travelers safe and informed throughout their trip. Outsourced risk management companies are often called upon to partner with the TMC and integrate solutions into the booking tool. (Many risk assessment firms can aggregate data from multiple government systems and monitor social media for the latest updates). These duty of care initiatives don’t only protect the traveler from surprises at the border, but also offer warnings and alerts for weather disruptions, political upheaval, and a host of other issues.
Demand for international travel has been low, given the restrictions. According to both the September and October 2021 member polls by the Global Business Travel Association (GBTA), nearly 80% of companies had canceled all or most international business trips. But corporations do need to be ready for an upswing. In the October GBTA poll, 28% of respondents said their companies plan to resume international travel in the next one to three months. The October poll was taken after the U.S. announced plans to reopen its borders as of November 8 to vaccinated travelers from 33 countries. Half of the GBTA poll respondents said they expected the border reopening — after the 20-month closure — to “moderately increase” the volume of international business travel within six months, while 23% expected the policy change to “greatly increase” international travel.
Corporations also need to consider the extra costs involved with international travel, including PCR tests, which can run about US$150 each (with multiple tests needed) as well as quarantining at a hotel. Hopefully a negative PCR result can shorten the time to quarantine, but what if an employee tests positive? Companies may need to be on full alert to provide access to in-person or virtual medical care and two weeks of quarantining, often at a hotel. These costs can build up, and companies may need to rewrite their expense authorization rules to keep up. According to The Business Travel Trends & Insights survey conducted by BTN Group Content Solutions in August, only 37% of travel managers said the company reimburses for a hotel stay during quarantine.
With so much in flux, business travelers know they must be well prepared at every turn to ensure a safe and pleasant flight. Their needs will only multiply as they head outside borders. Ultimately every player in the travel value chain should take responsibility for informing travelers of ever-changing COVID warnings and requirements, including airlines, TMCs and the travelers themselves. But corporations also need to step up their game. Chances are that even when international travel does resume in force, COVID restrictions will remain in place for many destinations. Rethinking duty of care, partnerships with risk management companies and expense reimbursement policies is a good way to start. Even for domestic travel, companies and travelers must re-check state and local rules on mask use and proof of vaccinations prior to travel as rules continue to change.