This Op-Ed originally appeared in BTN Europe, 11 June, 2020.
The coronavirus pandemic has had a huge impact on the entire travel economy, the likes of which we have not seen before.
It is without doubt one of the biggest market shocks to the travel sector, but it also represents a catalyst for long overdue innovation. If the industry is to emerge from its current paralyzed state, travel providers need to challenge the status quo and identify the gaps in their operations.
Transforming travel disruption
The ticketing process is one such area that has been ripe for change for over a decade.
During times of disruption, airlines around the world issue waivers to cover the cost of cancelled tickets that impact their corporate travelers.
Under normal circumstances, airline exception waivers are issued due to the likes of extreme weather conditions or other unforeseen disruption, such as strikes or technical issues on aircraft. While in these circumstances the effect on business travelers is inconvenient and often frustrating, the fallout for the corporate travel sector is manageable.
For major disruption events like the coronavirus pandemic, however, it’s a very different story. A flood of available waivers enters agents’ systems almost overnight, and the coronavirus pandemic is causing a tidal wave unlike anything we’ve seen before. And corporates shouldn’t assume their travel management company is managing this flood effectively.
In principle, the creation of waivers is good news for TMCs and their clients, but the reality is corporate travel chaos. Once an airline cancels a ticket, it can no longer be monitored as a live trip – nor matched to qualifying waivers. This long-standing technology gap has been exposed and exacerbated by the pandemic.
Our data shows at the peak of cancellations, between 30 March and 30 April 2020, more than 170 waivers were active globally, covering more than 900 airports around the world. On 27 April alone, 922 airports were covered by 83 pandemic-specific active waivers.
This swell of policy exceptions has overloaded the inboxes of travel agencies everywhere and the timing couldn’t be worse.
As COVID-19 poses questions about the long-term future of business travel, corporates are sitting with millions in unused tickets waiting on their TMC to process each one.
This is because corporate travel managers have to manually match individual tickets to an applicable waiver. Only at this stage can they request a refund or continuously track that ticket to be applied to a future booking.
Without getting a handle on the potentially huge hidden cost of unused tickets, demand within the corporate travel industry can never fully recover.
There are four areas of communication that need to change:
- Ticket and booking information shared between a corporation and the agency processing the ticket (all indirect channels).
- Updates to tickets between systems from airlines to agency to corporation.
- Outstanding costs between airlines and corporation.
- Trip information updates, such as the status on cancelled flights, for the traveler.
Airlines and agencies need more data management
Each broken link in the communication chain is dependent on data management. Automating how this information is shared requires structured data, so where do companies start?
First, the industry has to share data, putting aside concerns about who gets what – and trust that the mutual benefit will outweigh individual needs. It’s about partnering for change.
For example, we’re currently collaborating with other technology experts to find a solution for matching applicable waivers to unused tickets.
Our initial analysis is aimed at identifying details of waivers that may be applicable for matching to a cancelled ticket, which cancelled tickets may be eligible for refunds and how this data can be shared more easily by TMCs to help process refunds.
We believe this innovation is what the corporate travel sector desperately needs to transform the waiver-matching process and uncover hidden disruption costs.
Airlines, too, will benefit from putting these unused ticket funds back into use.
At a time when carriers are under pressure to provide refunds and flexible future travel options, waivers should offer a welcome means of encouraging rebooking among those who fly for business.
It is only by removing barriers to waiver redemption that we can relieve pressure on airline customer service teams, already strained from navigating cancellations and booking changes.
The travel and tourism industry is estimated to be worth US$10 trillion globally. What’s not quantifiable are the countless lost hours and resources spent handling calls from TMCs, seeking refunds for clients on cancelled business trips during COVID-19.
We all want to see business travelers take to the skies again. But our industry first needs to collaborate to banish the time-poor and labor-intensive process of manual waiver-matching for good.
If we want to get the corporate travel sector back on its feet and protect this vital revenue stream for airlines in the future, we must address the technology gap at the heart of the problem.
How Cirium can help you
With Cirium as a data analytics partner, you can stay ahead of the curve through proactive traveler services, performance analytics and market insights. With the right data management strategy your business can more easily adapt and transform to the changing traveler demands.
Are you ready to get started? Download our guide, Open Letter to Travel: How to innovate in a crisis, by Robyn Grassanovits.
Or check out our webinar listings, both on-demand and upcoming live events.