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Many countries are forming so-called travel bubbles to kickstart their summer seasons. Formal agreements between governments, the bubbles allow tourists to bypass strict quarantine measures.
And now the private sector is looking to this model to restart corporate travel and, ultimately, help revive economies.
Singapore was one of the first countries to test this concept — admittedly spearheaded by its government — and on June 8 established a “fast lane” with six Chinese regions, including Shanghai, to fast-track business and essential travel.
However, while business travel bubbles make business sense, they come with caveats ranging from technological and legislative issues, to softer ones like levels of trust between countries.
How Do They Work?
Taking Singapore as an example, the business traveler will need to be sponsored by a company or government agency, which files an application on their behalf for a SafeTravel Pass, to be eligible for the fast lane.
The traveler also needs to pay for a coronavirus test within 48 hours before departure, with a certificate proving a negative result. Those entering Singapore must have also stayed in one of the six Chinese provinces for the last seven days before their departure.
On arrival in Singapore, as well as producing the SafeTravel Pass, the business traveler will also need to pass a second coronavirus test, and show evidence of a return air ticket.
Sounds straightforward? The UK’s Business Travel Association thinks so, and has even offered to step in; last week it petitioned the government to pilot a travel corridor scheme as an alternative to the new blanket travel quarantine.
For the UK, reestablishing trade links is a pressing matter as the country has one of the world’s highest infection rates, which is only now starting to ease. The association compiled signatures from 20 CEOs across the corporate travel sector to urge ministers to work with it to get businesses traveling within seven days.
Like Singapore and China, it has proposed a scheme with coronavirus tests for overseas business travelers arriving in the UK and UK business travelers returning to this country.
“Business travel contributes £600 million ($750 million) a day to UK gross domestic product. It’s vital that we make this possible now and in doing so, reignite the British economy,” Clive Wratten, the association’s CEO, wrote in a letter to Priti Patel, the UK government’s home secretary.
The association has said the pilot could initially run for arrivals at any UK airport from the three most in-demand short-haul destinations for business travel: Paris, Frankfurt and Amsterdam.
The Right Tech
One of the challenges some countries face is assessing if their own airport infrastructure is fit for purpose.
“Countries are really keen to start opening up their borders, but they’re also going to be mindful about having a resurgence in coronavirus cases. Governments will want to open in a controlled way, and corridors are a way of achieving that,” said Jeremy Springall, vice president of border management at airport technology provider SITA.
He argues that one of the key technologies governments will need is the ability to be able to deny boarding of someone before they travel, if they’re deemed high risk.
“For many years since 9/11 there have been a lot of requirements to send advance passenger information and the travel booking data from airlines to governments. A key part of these corridors will be about providing information around who is traveling, so the government can have real-time data about who’s traveling, and then risk assess you,” he said.
“Singapore will be expecting passengers to apply for travel under a concept that’s similar to the travel authorization process that’s existed for years. If you want to travel to Shanghai from Singapore, you would typically apply for a visa. What we’ll now see is that, as well as that visa type of arrangement or electronic travel authority, like an Esta for the U.S., you’ll also have to complete a health declaration or health electronic travel authority.”
Countries seeking a fast lane will need advanced passenger processing in place to control the flow of corporate travelers entering. But, “not every country has it, so how do we start getting more countries using these systems to enable these travel corridors to succeed?” Springall added. “At the point of check-in, border officials should be able to carry out real-time checks to see if they want to let you in the country or not, to check the travel authority in case they need to deny someone boarding a flight.”
Airports must also keep queues as small as possible, while there will also be a focus on touchless or low-touch procedures, including biometric checks. It pays to visualize these travel corridors as literal corridors, with as little physical contact as possible, whether it’s border guards wanting to open traveler’s passports or moving bags around, to help minimize the spread of coronavirus.
“You also need to make sure different corridors don’t come into contact with each other. For example, you could have London to Washington, and arriving passengers are handled separately via different routes,” Springall added.
Heathrow Airport’s Terminal 5, exclusively used by IAG’s British Airways and Iberia, has an advantage to operate a business travel bubble, and Springall said the two airlines are well placed to segment passengers in the right locations throughout the terminal.
Trust and diplomatic relationships come into play too. When discussing the Singapore-China scheme, Singapore’s trade and industry minister Chan Chun Sing said similar discussions were ongoing with other countries: “Mutual assurance and confidence to put in place effective Covid-19 prevention and control measures are important in such fast lane arrangements.”
Singapore has been one of China’s largest trading partners for several years, so are on good terms. The same can’t be said for other countries such as the U.S. and its relationship with China.
Elsewhere, one lawyer has warned that governments seen to be supporting a travel bubble with one country over another could come under fire.
“Travel between countries used to be governed by bilateral treaties, for example Bermuda II — limiting the approved carriers operating the routes between UK and U.S.,” said Ian Skuse, partner at law firm Blake Morgan. “This was replaced by Open Skies by which EU member states were prohibited from individual bilateral treaties, and routes were to be determined by the EU thus creating equality between member states. These arrangements replaced, for example, the EU/Europe and U.S. agreement and so providing free competition between member states and giving access to those routes that were restricted.
“New ‘air corridors’ will need to comply with EU law relating to access by other member states and any discrimination against non-contracting states would be contrary to the open market and open skies. Also, possibilities of accusations of state aid were the UK government to sponsor these arrangements essentially making it more expensive for other state carriers.”
Duty of care is a common theme in managed travel, but under a fast lane deal it could reach a new level as governments will be wary of any corporate travelers who go astray, according to SITA’s Springall.
“There’s a concern around ensuring the corridor is kept whole. If you fly into Washington, the UK and U.S. wouldn’t want you to visit New York for the day,” he said. “The risk profile of London-Washington is manageable, but if you start traveling around the U.S. it rises, so we’ll need some way of managing people’s travel once they get to the destination, to make sure this arrangement works. How do airlines and governments to that?”
Despite the obstacles, travel management companies cautiously welcome such schemes.
“In the UK specifically, the 14-day quarantine period is definitely going to hamper our clients’ ability to travel on business. So of course we welcome any steps or initiatives that will open up business routes faster between the UK and Europe,” said Graham Ross, European head of sales at FCM Travel Solutions.
“In theory, the Business Travel Association’s proposal for air corridors between UK airports and Paris, Frankfurt and Amsterdam is a welcome initiative and will help raise awareness at government level of the importance of the business travel sector. But in reality, the whole situation around quarantine rules, borders opening and easing of lockdown restrictions is still very fluid and could change from one week to the next.”
Philip Wooster, vice president of Western Europe sales at CWT, added: “Business travel, in a typical year, contributes around $276 billion to UK’s gross domestic product. The numbers are alarming so it’s understandable there’s talks of travel bubbles.
“Identifying countries in which to negotiate a safe corridor can only be beginning of the plan. Quarantine at both ends, or perhaps at one end, will be a non-starter for business travelers. Then there are the multiple touch points along the journey. We feel the entire journey needs to be safe; transportation to/from the airport, airport facilities, airlines/aircraft and overnight stays. The entire travel ecosystem needs to be robust.”
However, even with fast lanes, organizations have other factors to consider, not least having full access to office locations.
“New York is very relevant to us, but like the UK it is still highly affected by coronavirus. Even if a fast lane was in place, would you want to get on a flight to New York?,” said Andy Cassidy, corporate travel manager at media company AMC Networks International. “Probably not.”
“And when visiting clients, are their offices going to be open? If they are, are they expecting visitors, and in particular visitors from a Covid hotspot? If we do go for a phased approach (to returning to travel), we’ll also have business critical travel only for the first three months,” he added.
Another factor he said he’d look at is whether his program’s preferred hotels were actually open in the destination.
For the UK’s own fast lane ambitions, the Business Travel Association’s Wratten believes the plan can be quickly implemented if the government works closely with industry leaders from across the sector, but SITA’s Springall is less optimistic.
“How do we get this in place quickly?” Springall said. “Technology providers like us are rapidly introducing low-touch technologies, and joining up this layered approach to border management. But that takes time. If we’re going to get business travel up and running quickly, we need speed. That’s a big issue.”
He predicts business travel will ramp up in the latter part of year, around August, September and October, with restrictions set to last for at least a year.
The idea that corporations might be soon fast-tracking employees overseas, despite being in a perceived high-risk destination, is an appealing one. But there’s a lot of work — as well as good faith — that’s needed in the coming weeks to make it a reality.