A live poll of corporate participants during a recent webinar hosted by the Global Business Travel Association (GBTA) Southern Africa and International SOS, indicated that 46% were ‘nearly ready’ to recommence business travel, 35% were ‘ready’ and 19% were ‘not ready’.
The webinar – ‘Rethinking safety of the business traveller’ – saw participants from 26 countries, including SA, answering a series of questions before and after the main discussion points.
Before the discussion started, 39% said they planned to resume travel immediately after borders opened. Once borders were open, 35% said they would resume travel within three months, 18% were unsure, 7% opted for six months and 1% would only resume travel once a vaccine was available.
GBTA SA board member, Robyn Christie, said travel buyers now found themselves in the precarious position of needing to reshape travel policies in terms of COVID-19 protocols, which meant the buyer role had become hugely more responsible.
International SOS representative, Hany Bakr, security director, Aviation & Maritime, MedAire, said in future TMCs and travel buyers needed to summarise country guidance and help clients understand quarantine restrictions. He also suggested they should question the age of aircraft and whether they were equipped with the appropriate HEPA filters.
“The travelling public must be advised exactly what the policies are for each airport and airline; they need information prior to, during, and upon arrival at a destination. There will be discipline for non-compliance and it will be in the best interests of the travelling public to avoid disruptive behaviour, such as refusal to wear protective face covers.”
Due to the significant global diplomatic effort behind aviation recovery, he believed passengers would be empowered to take more control of their journeys in terms of assessing their own health risks. They would also be required to provide additional information at the time of booking and check-in for tracing and data-processing purposes.
He said the pandemic had accelerated digital development in the sector, which meant that all touch points in the passenger experience were being redesigned around contactless options. Further widespread changes he anticipated included baggage reduction; the removal of on-board reading material and food services; restricted use of on-board restrooms; COVID-19 guidance announcements at ports of arrival; protective gear for crew and passengers as well as health screening and physical distancing in more places, such as boarding gates.
“We are at the lowest demand of travel, but once bookings increase and confidence returns it will be difficult to maintain social distancing,” he cautioned.
Dr Jeanine de Villiers, deputy medical director, International SOS Medical Assistance Centre Johannesburg, highlighted how important it was to assess each patient’s status, location and the standard of medical care already available before simply assuming that an evacuation was the answer.
“It is not always in the best interests of patients to transport them home. Most people who get COVID-19 experience mild disease and don’t need to evacuate. If you want to travel commercially and you are COVID-19 positive, you will have to adhere to airline regulations and may not be allowed to travel. Seriously ill patients with COVID-19 who can’t be treated where they are may require air ambulance.”
Such evacuations were complex, she said, as they required authorisations and clearances that could take up to two working days or longer from multiple authorities and stakeholders. This could be daunting for people to do themselves, resulting in significant delays that could be detrimental to the patient’s health, she advised.
Based on the discussion, 79% of participants subsequently said they would add to and change the safety measures to which their organisations were already committed. Some (43%) felt confident their plans should remain the same, while 29% would influence for a later resumption of essential travel. The remaining 28% said they would encourage essential travel to resume sooner.
In terms of the reduction in business trips, 35% felt these would reduce by 30%-50%, 26% said 30% or less, 26% estimated a 50% or more reduction, while 13% estimated that the number of trips would stay the same as 2019.
In order to facilitate essential travel, participants said they would commit to the following safety measures: pre-travel risk assessments (60%), traveller tracking and communication systems (20%), delivery of information and instruction/training (14%), support for workers in isolation (3%) and welfare facilities such as clean food and water/mental health (3%).