On average, over 10% of trips experience disruptions. There are many types of risk that travelers face; some are on a smaller scale and lower-impact, such as misplaced luggage, issues with traffic and public transportation and a cancelled or delayed flight. And then there are other types of traveler risk where the stakes are higher and the scale broader, such as a natural disaster, political unrest or terrorism. At my company, Ovation Travel Group, we manage travel for over 300,000 business and leisure travelers, and it is our responsibility to consider the health and safety of others as they conduct business and go on vacations. Regardless of the travel type, it's our job to have a risk management plan in place in order to mitigate risk and disruption, and help travelers experience a safe and successful trip. And right now, we are dealing with a very high profile risk scenario that's both widespread and with high stakes for those who may be affected: the coronavirus.
Ovation has been in business for over 35 years, and we've seen a number of public health issues, including SARS, H1N1, Ebola and Zika, and we've had plans in place to reduce disruption in such times. At travel management companies, risk management services typically include traveler tracking and pre-trip and post-trip security reporting, proactive rebooking and evacuation services, if necessary. It doesn't matter if you're the owner of a regional business with three global travelers or the CEO of a multinational corporation, a strategic and solidly founded risk management program can mean the difference between knowing where your people are and being able to quickly communicate with and assist them during a disruptive incident, versus losing track of them.
This is what we are seeing at Ovation, in terms of the current coronavirus outbreak, and what travelers need to know now:
Updates from Official Sources. First and foremost, it's important to acknowledge what may be a rumor and to get the facts from official sources. Right now, there are over 24,500 confirmed cases in over 25 countries; most of the cases, including most of the 492 deaths, are in China. There are currently 11 confirmed cases in the US. Some positive news is that, over the past 5 years and with bipartisan support, continually increasing funding is available to mitigate outbreaks such as this, including a current $100 million immediately available to the CDC. Further, The World Health Organization (WHO), State Department and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) are stating the following:
- On Thursday, the WHO declared the coronavirus a global health emergency, "not because of what is happening in China, but because of [...] the potential for the virus to spread to countries with weaker health systems, and which are ill-prepared to deal with it."
- Also on Thursday, the State Department issued a Level 4 "do not travel" advisory to China. It states, "Travelers should be prepared for little or no advance notice. Commercial carriers have reduced or suspended notice routes to and from China."
- The CDC issued a "Warning - Level 3" alert for China, recommending that travelers avoid all non-essential travel to the country.
Presidential Proclamation Issued. On Friday, the US government issued a Presidential Proclamation that imposed the following entry requirements, which went into effect on February 2nd at 5:00 p.m. EST:
- All passengers on flights to the US that have been to Hubei Province in China will be subject to up to 14 days of quarantine.
- Foreign nationals who have traveled to mainland China within the last 14 days will be denied permission to travel to the United States.
- Any US citizen or lawful permanent resident who has traveled to mainland China within the last 14 days must enter the US through an approved airport. Those 11 approved airports are: Atlanta, Chicago's O'Hare, Dallas/Fort Worth, Detroit, Honolulu, Los Angeles International, New York's John F Kennedy Airport, Newark, San Francisco International, Seattle and Washington Dulles.
Airline Updates: On Friday, American Airlines, Delta Airlines and United Airlines said they were cancelling all flights to China; similarly, on Tuesday, American and United cancelled flights to Hong Kong. Other airlines with suspended or reduced service to China include Air Asia, Air India, British Airways, Cathay Pacific, China Airlines, Etihad Airlines, Lufthansa, Polish Airlines, Qantas Airlines, Qatar Airlines, Turkish Airlines and Virgin Atlantic. Many airlines are waiving change fees for those who want to rebook travel to China for a later day, and some are offering full refunds. The specifics for each airline can change, so if you have a question about a future flight, contact the airline and ask about your trip status, what their policy on an itinerary change is and what your options are.
Proactive Travel Precautions. At Ovation, over the last few weeks we've had many travelers call to cancel trips to China. Related, many travelers are changing flights that had a connection either in China or one of its neighboring countries. We've had many of our clients pull reports of travelers who have recently flown to China or are set to do so in the upcoming month. Some clients have asked their travelers to cancel trips to China altogether for the foreseeable future and others have put them on hold. For all of our 700+ clients who have scheduled trips to China throughout the coming weeks, we are tracking, reporting on and proactively reaching out to re-accommodate any traveler whose plans are affected by traveler restrictions. And these concerns are widespread. As the New York Times recently reported, "The growing uncertainty about the safety of traveling to China is bedeviling companies large and small around the world and rippling through global supply chains."
Advice for travelers. At Ovation, we offer a number of communications associated with risk management for travelers, including trip alerts with up-to-date itinerary information, news alerts and "Travelgrams" that convey important information such as breaking travel industry news. Our most recent Travelgram was about the coronavirus, and in part, we encouraged travelers to check the CDC's website for the most updated information. While the CDC has specific instructions for people who have recently traveled to China, they also state: "The best way to prevent infection is to avoid being exposed to [the coronavirus]. However, as a reminder, CDC always recommends everyday preventive actions to help prevent the spread of respiratory viruses." Those actions include washing hands often with soap and water for at least 20 seconds; avoiding touching your eyes, nose, and mouth with unwashed hands; staying home when sick and covering your cough and sneezing with a tissue. Which, particularly during cold and flu season, feels like sound, practical advice.