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September 2022, Virtual
September 29 2022, Virtual
One year on from the ash crisis, are companies better able to keep track of the whereabouts of their travellers, asks Sara Turner.
A year ago the world of business travel across Europe was gradually returning to normal, after being brought to a virtual stand-still by the eruption of a difficult to pronounce volcano in Iceland. At the time, travellers were grateful to be home, or back to work, with tales of cars hired and driven through Europe and ferries boarded to cross the channel in a bid to beat the grounding of aircraft.
Travel management companies (TMCs), meanwhile, were gathering the key lessons learnt during the ash crisis. In particular companies and TMCs were criticised for not having basic details, such as up to date mobile phone numbers and email addresses for their travellers, and possibly more worryingly, for not knowing exactly where these travellers were. Today, these details are up to date and checked regularly, but how far has traveller tracking improved?
Since April last year, a number of events have, and continue to, put this to the test – heavy snowfall during winter, followed by a terrorist explosion at an airport in Moscow, civil unrest in the Middle East and North Africa, natural disasters in Australia, and the great Japanese earthquake and tsunami.
According to Stewart Harvey, however, the business travel industry is much better placed to cope with incidents of such a large scale than it was in the Spring of 2010, and has put its learnings, in particular around traveller tracking, into practice during the recent upheavals.
“The first three months of this year have been astonishing,” said Harvey, but a change in attitude from the corporates themselves has facilitated much improvement in how much information they have on travellers and how they track them.
“Their attitude has been that traveller tracking is no longer something you should consider,” he said, “it’s something you have to do and hope you never have to use – when you need it, you really need it. That’s been a fundamental difference and sadly the last few months have underlined that in a powerfully painful way.”
Harvey said the level of cooperation from clients has increased greatly: “With almost every major client we’ve got, we’ve had access to their human resources team, their IT teams, and their security teams. They’ve asked us what they need to do to help, and what we would change about the way they work. We had those conversations throughout last autumn, which meant we were in a better condition to cope with more recent events.”
Julie Oliver, Business Travel Direct’s managing director, agreed that traveller tracking is now an absolute must for corporates and highlighted the need for agencies to tap into travel security technology: “As soon as we learn of an emergency situation whether by television reports, FCO advice, email alerts or twitter, we immediately run a crisis management report on our Sabre Traveler Security tool to find out who is in the affected area and who is due to travel to the destination in the near future. This is when the crisis management plan kicks in.
“Firstly we must ensure messages are delivered to the traveller impacted using Sabre VirtuallyThere web and mobile tools. The second step is to inform their employer, and then contact travellers whose immediate travel plans are going to be disrupted. We then provide a more general consultative service for our customers to give them a broader understanding about how the crisis will impact them.”
She said that Business Travel Direct has made capturing traveller data such as phone numbers, email addresses and social media contacts mandatory, for use in an emergency. “In the event of an incident we can mobilise staff very quickly and have policies and procedures that must be followed depending on the nature of the incident,” she said.
Peter Muller, ATPI's divisional managing director, said ATPI had also refined its traveller tracking and security procedures after the ash crisis: "The ash cloud forced all businesses to revisit processes," he said. "One thing we did was look at the whole viability of travellers using split tickets. We also evolved some of the controls given to travel managers. We wanted to grant managers more access to traveller tracking systems so they could be quicker to ascertain where our clients were located if a similar incident was to occur again."
While TMCs hope they are better prepared for future incidents, Carlson Wagonlit’s (CWT) Nigel Turner warned that corporates themselves could improve – some companies are engaging with the need to accurately keep track of travellers, he said, but not all: “Undoubtedly a lot of customers could still do more on the security front. It’s one of those things that perhaps gets put on a back burner, but it’s vital when things go wrong.”
Mark Bowers, joint CEO of Redfern Travel, agreed: “Predictably major events like the current unrest in the Middle East spark renewed interest in traveller tracking capabilities. It’s a pity that the same level of importance is not routinely attached to this functionality – it’s a bit like making sure you’re insured after a burglary.
“Unfortunately, unwelcome events, (whether they be natural disasters, civil unrest, accidents) are fairly commonplace. With that in mind, at Redfern we have our own traveller tracking solution Redfern Taveller Security which captures every leg of every journey undertaken by our clients, from a local rail ticket to a round the world itinerary. Most days our operations team will be searching one location or another to ensure we don’t have travellers impacted by these incidents, many of which are never covered by the national media.”
The true value of traveller tracking should not be underestimated, added Bowers. It’s not just about meeting duty of care obligations, he said, “but also the simple human element of being able to advise family that their loved ones are safe”.
No doubt travellers, their organisations and their TMCs will find themselves put to the test in the future, possibly with the eruption of Eyjafjallajökull’s neighbour or a worsening of the disturbances in Syria, to name just two of the many current security fears worldwide. To ensure travellers are best looked after, cooperation is vital – as CWT’s Turner said: “We all need to work together to make sure we can use these emergency resources as effectively as possible.”