SNAPSHOT: COVID-19 will signal a major transformation in business travel
- COVID-19 will have a profound impact on international business travel, reflecting the multitude of challenges businesses are currently faced with.
- Beyond the clear operational implications, planning for business travel will become more complex as organisers will need to ensure compliance with national restrictions as they continue to be applied to varying extents across the world.
- A fall in demand due to national lockdowns and a looming global economic recession means that a disruption to international travel will likely continue throughout the rest of the year.
Recent Developments & Analysis
- A worsening global economic outlook will force companies in the aviation industry to adapt and quickly recalibrate corporate strategies. In practice, this will mean a more limited availability of flights in the short-to-medium terms as airlines prioritise cost-cutting. In the longer term, flights could also become more expensive as airlines take extra steps to ensure some level of disease control in planes. According to research from the Pew Research Center in April, more than 90 per cent of the world’s population live in countries were travel restrictions on visitors from abroad, including tourists and business travellers, apply.
- Once air travel begins to pick up pace, social distancing will be especially difficult to implement in airports. While placing stickers on floors can help encourage people to keep a safe distance from others, queues at duty-free counters and restaurants will be unavoidable. Airports will seek to solve these problems via innovative technological solutions and extensive customer awareness campaigns. Hong Kong International Airport (HKG) has trialled a procedure involving full-body disinfection booths on some of its staff. The airport authority has also said it would test anti-microbial coating, which when applied to high-contact surfaces such as door handles, baggage trolleys, and buses, eliminates germs and bacteria.
- Some countries may require people to take swab COVID-19 tests upon arrival. If these indicate a positive result, then people should anticipate being put into a mandatory quarantine for at least a two-week period. Destinations of origin will be a factor. For instance, if a traveller arrives from a country that has experienced a particularly extensive outbreak, there could be additional requirements or tests.
- Despite the gradual easing of national lockdowns amid declining cases, plans to impose quarantines aimed at controlling infection levels from abroad are being rolled out. On 10 May, the UK government outlined plans to introduce new rules requiring air passengers arriving at UK airports to self-isolate for 14-days. Those arriving from France and Ireland are exempt. It remains unclear when the new measure will come into effect but this will likely be later in May. From 15 May, Spain will also require foreign visitors to self-quarantine for two weeks; permission to leave accommodation will only be given for healthcare access and essential shopping.
- In the US, a number of airlines, including Delta, American, Frontier, and United Airlines, and JetBlue have introduced requirements mandating the wearing of face masks by all passengers. EU-based airlines Air France, KLM, and Lufthansa have also made face masks compulsory and more will almost certainly follow.
- The French flag carrier, Air France, has also begun carrying out pre-boarding temperature checks on passengers, with anyone having temperatures above 38 degrees centigrade being prevented from flying. This effectively means that passengers with ordinary flu symptoms will not be allowed to travel.
- Health certificates confirming that travellers are ‘COVD-19-free’ will likely form part of plans by some national governments to cautiously open up borders. Greek authorities will require passengers from abroad to have a valid health certificate, issued in the last 72 hours, stating that they are not carriers of COVID-19. Without this, they will be unable to board flights.
- Firms will face more responsibility to ensure the wellbeing of staff during business trips, with disease prevention becoming of paramount importance. Pre-travel risk assessments, taking into account factors like a destination’s exposure to the virus based on case numbers, will become a more integral feature of travel risk management plans.
Forecast & Advice
- Additional requirements at airports will likely become the norm while the threat of another wave in infections remains high. Barring the discovery of a vaccine or effective treatment against COVID-19, conditions for travel will be more challenging until at least the end of the year.
- New national and local-level guidelines will need to be taken into account before arranging trips. Risk assessments should include public health guidelines and any applicable travel restrictions, which will vary depending on the status of national outbreaks. Assessing the criticality of trips will also become a more regular practice.
- Market uncertainties and increasing demand will likely drive up travel insurance premiums. In the UK alone, insurers expect to give around GBP275 million, far surpassing the GBP62 million paid out in the aftermath of the 2010 Eyjafjallajökull volcano eruptions in Iceland.
- The time-sensitive nature of business travel will also face changing circumstances. Such trips typically involve staggering multiple meetings in a tight schedule, while some informal engagements may also involve restaurant visits with clients or colleagues. Visiting numerous client sites, affiliate offices, and accommodation is also common while on a business trip abroad.
- In a post-COVID-19 context, more time will have to be allocated for overseas business travel, while in some instances short-stays will not be possible due to mandatory quarantines. Staff travelling for work purposes should plan for delays and longer processing times at airports. Employees should also ensure they have all necessary documentation, including details of their accommodation while abroad. Moreover, managers should anticipate what a two-week quarantine in selected countries will signify for meetings and other work commitments.
- Another thing to consider is the period of travel. In seasons when viral infections become more widespread such as Autumn, travel could be discouraged to reduce any potential risks to travelling employees or firms.
- Flexible travel options, providing faster refunds or amendments to trips, will become preferable due to elevated uncertainty across the board. If a trip cannot be avoided or postponed, travel managers should instruct staff to take extra steps to mitigate the risk of contraction and spread. This includes wearing a face mask and disposable gloves if possible, travelling with anti-bacterial hand gel or wipes, and following any relevant social distancing guidelines.
- Travel managers should also consider liaising with partner firms and colleagues in host countries to confirm what their office policy is beforehand, and whether there are any applicable country-specific requirements.