Skift Take

A highly decorated U.S Army veteran has voiced what a lot of people are thinking: How did we all make such a mess of reacting to the pandemic?

A retired Special Forces commander has delivered a scathing attack on the global response to coronavirus, calling out the U.S. in particular, and urged the travel industry to think twice about using the term “duty of care” in the future.

Online travel conferences usually bring in expert speakers from outside the industry; epidemiologists tend to talk at a lot of them currently, but technology company Deem parachuted Dale Buckner in for its Miles Ahead event.

His main gripe was the lack of a coordinated policy to stem the transmission of Covid-19, not only in the U.S. with the main carriers putting different hygiene standards in place, but across the globe, with governments failing to support them.

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“All of the airlines, and all of the hotels in the travel industry, have been fending for themselves,” said Buckner, who served in the army for 24 years, including 13 years in the Special Forces Green Berets, and has earned 27 awards and decorations.

Dale Buckner speaking at Deem’s online event.

“The bottom line is, we didn’t have a country platform, or a global platform, and it failed us … We really missed the boat in the travel industry by creating a standard,” he said during a TED Talk-style 10-minute slot last week.

Buckner, who is also president of security, medical and emergency response services Global Guardian, added that only recently did the U.S. manage to announce a standard for travel. “Eleven months into it, we didn’t have one standard for screening for travelers, temperature checks, mask mandates and hygiene,” he said.

Last month, the federal government granted authority to the Transportation Security Administration to deny entry or boarding to passengers who refuse to wear masks, or fine them.

Duty Bound

Another gripe was the travel industry’s use of the term “duty of care.”

“The term gets used in ways it should not,” he said. “There’s a fundamental misunderstanding of that term, and more importantly the definition, moving forward, has to change.”

He complained that many organizations assumed they had duty of care covered. “They think it’s just tracking, or just intelligence, or just tracking passenger name records, or just alerts to your travelers, overlaid with some cheap insurance products that have lots of restrictions.”

But when a major incident occurred, those same organizations were perplexed when they didn’t have a real solution at a corporate level, because of those restrictions.

“Are your existing platforms, between insurance and vendors and providers, enough? Will it respond in a time of crisis or is it just superficial? That acknowledgement is really important at this time,” he said.

Embassies Are Not Armed to the Hilt

Another piece of advice was that companies should not rely on their embassy to help business travelers in times of crisis. A lost passport, yes, but not these global disruptions that are starting to happen more often.

“How do you think the U.S. state department did in evacuating its citizens? If part of your duty of care plan is telling people to go the local embassy to solve their problems, it’s completely misaligned with what embassies are for,” he said.

“I’ve worked out of embassies. They are not manned, trained or equipped for an emergency evacuation at scale. To think they’re going to get thousands of expats out of a country is completely wrong. They don’t have vehicles, or people with guns, and helicopters to go rescue people from the countryside and bring them to a capital city, and evacuate them back to their home country … that’s not real.”

The former colonel also echoed the current thinking around digital health passports: Great for countries that can afford to invest in the systems for their airports to accept them, but many countries won’t be able to. They’ll then have to rely on handwritten cards, so any global recovery is unlikely to be equal.

Asking the Hard Questions

Company travel managers now needed to ask themselves the hard question — the “what if” question — to prepare for the next major event.

For example, what if they have 53 people traveling in Paris, and the next attack hits? Or they’re in Mexico and an earthquake hits? “When that happens, of all the different tools you have in your toolkit, ask yourself: will it evacuate people out of Peru after they shut dow the border and airspace. Can I medically evacuate someone out of China?

“If you have people in Vegas when someone starts shooting … does a tracking app or an alert do anything? Is technology alone enough? It’s not going to solve problems.”

Ending his 10-minute slot, Buckner said he hoped the travel industry would at least now unite a little better to establish a global standard, because this pandemic won’t be the last one. For now, that’s something the industry can probably can agree on.

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Tags: coronavirus, corporate travel, corporate travel management, duty of care, tsa

Photo credit: Airmen assigned to the 10th Expeditionary Aeromedical Evacuation Flight unload a litter with a simulated patient from a C-17 Globemaster III aircraft during training at Ramstein Air Base, Germany, on Jan. 26, 2021. Airman Magazine/Daniel Sanchez / Flickr

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