[UPDATE, April 19, 2017: Emirates cited revised U.S. government policies for its decision to reduce flight frequencies on five U.S. routes. In May the airline will begin reducing to five weekly from daily the flights to Fort Lauderdale and Orlando. In June, it will trim twice-daily Boston and Seattle services to one per day. The same reduction will impact Los Angeles services, effective in July. “The recent actions taken by the U.S. government relating to the issuance of entry visas, heightened security vetting and restrictions on electronic devices in aircraft cabins have had a direct impact on consumer interest and demand for air travel into the U.S.,” according to a memo to travel agencies. “Over the past three months, we have seen a significant deterioration in the booking profiles on all our U.S. routes, across all travel segments.”]
Checking laptops and tablets isn’t just an annoying hit to productivity. In many cases, corporate policies don’t allow it. How do organizations reconcile those policies with new aviation security rules that ban all but small electronic devices from airplane cabins on inbound flights from certain Middle Eastern and North African airports?
Half a dozen travel managers from multinational organizations told The Company Dime how they’re reacting to new U.S. and U.K. restrictions. One way around is obvious: Don’t book itineraries involving the affected airports. The U.S. electronics ban covers flights from Abu Dhabi, Amman, Cairo, Casablanca, Doha, Dubai, Istanbul, Jeddah, Kuwait City and Riyadh.
When it’s not possible to avoid those airports, companies may consider policy modifications or exceptions allowing travelers to check devices. That won’t sit well with those concerned about theft, data privacy and damage. Switching off devices and using encrypted hard drives may help.
To work out workarounds, some travel departments are coordinating with security, risk management, legal and IT. A first step is filling in impacted travelers on the particulars. Point-of-sale messaging can direct them to book a different itinerary when necessary or inform them of other steps. Travel confirmation emails and pre-trip reports can provide destination-specific info. Authorization tools and travel agency mid-office systems also play a role.
So do mobile apps provided by travel management companies and risk management firms. BCD Travel SVP Yannis Karmis said the TMC sent messages to impacted travelers via the TripSource mobile app “within minutes” of picking up information about the new restrictions.
Beyond communication, one approach is giving travelers “clean” laptops housing only the basics. Or, they’re instructed to back up data to the cloud or removable storage devices like thumb drives (not banned from cabins) before wiping their own laptops. In these ways, sensitive corporate data isn’t exposed in transit.
International SOS EVP Tim Daniel said some industry sectors are more prepared than others when it comes to traveling with proprietary corporate information. Where there are no protocols in place, “people are sort of scrambling now,” he said. “For travel managers, it has not been a well-addressed topic. This is a teachable moment and a chance for travel managers to talk with colleagues.”
According to a travel manager at a large tech company, “We do discourage checking laptops and are concerned about the security at baggage claim. We are looking into a loaner program and having everyone leverage cloud storage and email, which may be the wave of the future.”
Another travel manager said travelers are advised to check laptops after securing them with TSA-approved locks. “IT said that if this is long term we need a long-term strategy,” the travel manager relayed. “They may want loaner laptops in those regional offices.”
In a letter to members, Association of Corporate Travel Executives executive director Greeley Koch wrote that some companies expect to run computer exchange programs.
Issues related to IT policies are one thing; travel operations are another.
One travel manager asked, “Do we pay to book away from those carriers” affected by the new rules? To answer the question, the travel manager now is running models to determine average ticket price differentials.
This kind of thinking, by individual travelers and corporate managers, could have ramifications. Should the restrictions stick, “certain Middle Eastern hubs may become structurally disadvantaged over time,” according to a March 23 research note from J.P. Morgan analysts. At the same time, European hubs may “extract yield premiums in exchange for making better use of business travelers’ time.” They pointed to “the tech-heavy corridor between the United States and India” as an area where consequences could be “material.”
“We are watching for fare increases and inventory management challenges” at U.S. and European carriers, according to one multinational buyer.
BCD Travel’s Karmis said he doesn’t expect travelers “to engineer incremental connections to avoid the ban.” While travelers planning to connect through an impacted airport may decide to connect elsewhere, Karmis said BCD hasn’t yet seen big shifts.
Nor has American Express Global Business Travel, said Jeremy Quek, airline practice lead for the TMC’s consulting team.
But should traffic patterns change, travel managers will have to consider the repercussions for airline contracts. “If people change to alternate options, does the company have negotiated discounts on those routings?” Quek asked.
There’s no telling when — or if — the United States and the United Kingdom will lift the new rules. The U.S. Department of Homeland Security said current restrictions are in effect “indefinitely.”
According to International SOS, “this measure or something like it will be a feature of international air travel for quite some time.”
IJet International suggested “a moderate likelihood” that U.S. or U.K. officials modify the list of impacted airports “in the coming weeks.” There also is “a moderate-to-high likelihood” that other countries announce similar restrictions.
IJet added that restrictions likely won’t change until authorities deploy new ways to screen larger electronic devices at passenger checkpoints.
That’s what the International Air Transport Association wants, and soon.
IATA director general Alexandre de Juniac on Tuesday bashed the U.S. and U.K. restrictions. “Even in the short term it is difficult to understand their effectiveness,” he said in a speech to the Montreal Council on Foreign Relations. “And the commercial distortions they create are severe.”
Additional info: Travel managers discussing this topic mostly did so anonymously. They cited sensitivities around government policies and their organizations’ security procedures. Some admitted to cynicism. They wondered if the reasons for the restrictions are political. Among the carriers affected by the U.S. policy are Emirates, Etihad Airways and Qatar Airways. Those three have faced a public relations and lobbying battle waged by American, Delta and United. The U.S. carriers claim the Middle Eastern airlines enjoy unfair government subsidies.
The U.K.’s ban excludes Abu Dhabi (Etihad’s base), Doha (Qatar’s base) and Dubai (Emirates’). It includes Tunisia and Lebanon, which have direct service to the United Kingdom but not the United States.
Some affected airlines, including Emirates, are allowing travelers to gate-check electronic devices.