Skift Take

Global travel management companies are navigating new travel restrictions that include combat zones and closed airports as they organize emergency evacuations in Ukraine and beyond.

Few travel management companies could have predicted they would be coordinating emergency repatriations so soon after carrying out countless evacuations at the start of the pandemic. But now several are planning operations to help companies and governments move staff out of both Ukraine and Russia.

The main challenge is the abruptness of the invasion. International security firm Global Guardian, for example, said on February 24, the day the war began, that a full-scale invasion was unlikely.

In its threat assessment it said there was a “15 percent” chance of Russia invading all of Ukraine that moves west of the Dnieper river. “(It) remains unlikely because of unified U.S.-EU blowback against Russian economy,” it said.

On Friday, the security firm, which works with international consulting firms, finance companies, technology firms and construction companies in Ukraine, added it had evacuated 4,000 people so far. “That’s the majority, but there are still some folks they’re working to get out,” said a spokesperson.

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In the weeks leading up to the invasion, American Express Global Business Travel was preparing a business continuity plan in preparation for its Ukrainian partner becoming non-operational.

“Unfortunately, our colleagues in the country were forced to shut down in the aftermath of the first attacks,” a spokesperson said. “Our travel counselors from across Europe, as well as our partners in Bulgaria and Romania, have stepped in and have been working around the clock to repatriate hundreds of travelers, including many of our client’s employees and their families.”

Amex GBT said the situation on the ground in Ukraine was dire because transport and accommodation became virtually inaccessible from outside the country within 24 hours of Russian troops advancing. “There are some trains, but they are unpredictable and there’s no guarantee you’ll get onboard. You might be able to get a car, but heavy traffic means a five-hour journey can take three days while fuel is scarce,” it said.

As part of its business continuity plan, Amex GBT is holding three calls a day to assess developments, anticipate issues and plan scenarios. It has also helped people evacuate from Russia.

BCD Travel, meanwhile, said it has spent the past few weeks preparing larger-scale evacuations.

“We’re deeply shocked and saddened by Russia’s attack on Ukraine,” a spokesperson said. “For clients with a significant presence in Ukraine and neighboring countries, we’ve worked closely with them and their specialized security providers in recent weeks to advise on and support individual and larger-scale evacuation discussions.”

As of Friday, its Travel Alert notification systems had posted 50 alerts on the developments that affected travel, from embassy closures and flight suspensions to the closure of European Union territories for Russian airlines.

Other agencies including CWT and Corporate Travel Management also were also focusing resources on ensuring clients’ employees were able to move quickly to safety as needed.

“We have supported a small number of corporate clients with transferring staff to other European Union countries (and hotel accommodation in Poland, Hungary, etc) and to the UK,” said a CTM spokesperson. However the agency, which works with the UK government, said it was unable to comment on its efforts with different government departments.

The repatriations come as company travel buyers remain divided over their own dealings when it came to the war, following a range of sanctions now placed on Russia and Russian companies.

Out of 100 travel buyers who were polled, 14 percent said they had reviewed the situation, and decided to take no action with their business travel program, while 43 percent said they had not yet considered the situation.

However, 15 percent of respondents in the survey, carried out by Goldspring Consulting on March 3, said they will remove contracts with Russian suppliers, such as Aeroflot and S7, while 29 percent said they would deprioritize or remove options for Russian suppliers from their corporate travel booking tool.

“The face and current construct of Europe will be changed forever regardless of what happens next — the status quo is changing right before our eyes,” said Dale Buckner, Global Guardian’s CEO. “We remain in a very delicate and uncertain period with Russia and the Ukraine.”

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Tags: aeroflot, american express global business travel, bcd travel, business travel, coronavirus, corporate travel, corporate travel management, covid-19, ctm, cwt, fcm, flight centre, russia, travel management, travel management companies, ukraine

Photo credit: Kiev, Ukraine. Asya Tes / Unsplash