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Navigating Through the New Travel Environment


The COVID-19 crisis has fundamentally impacted travel, both domestically and internationally in unprecedented ways. In early 2021, commercial flights worldwide are at half of the pre-pandemic levels, according to the OAG Aviation Worldwide. Passenger volumes are not expected to return to 2019 levels until 2024, with domestic markets recovering faster than international.

When we look specifically at business travel, we are starting to see increases in activity in our clients’ travel behaviours (monitored in our Tracker tool). Global domestic travel volumes in March 2021 have risen to approximately a fifth of their pre-pandemic levels. International arrivals have shown increases in certain locations too. For example, business trips to Qatar in 2021 are already at 20% of their pre-pandemic levels. 

Travel has also become undoubtedly more complicated – in Europe alone, we have seen in eight-fold increase in the number of cases per 100 trips1. Where travellers and their managers commonly seek our advice to help navigate the complexity of country restrictions and, of course, managing the threats of the disease itself.

New travel environment

Airlines and passengers need to take all the preventive measures for any necessary travel plans to adapt to the situation. Although many airlines were reducing the capability onboard or blocking the middle seat at early stages of the pandemic, most of the them have now abandoned this and are utilising other preventive measures.

Although no universal agreement has been made on vaccine health passports, the world's first 'COVID-19 passports' are being launched to enable people to travel without having to quarantine. Passengers will voluntarily upload their COVID-19 test results from a validated laboratory onto a digital health pass, such as the AOKPass, up to 72 hours before departure. Airlines and border officials will be able to scan the digital data to confirm that passengers are free of the virus, allowing them to reduce quarantine time. The goal is to create a standardised global testing system in which governments and airlines can trust passengers' results because they are from reputable laboratories and on a recognised health passport.

Additionally, people may voluntarily sign up to a service that tracks their movements via their phone, alerting them if they had been close to known infected people or disease hot spots. This type of advanced digital contact tracing could become a requirement to enter large venues, buildings, airports or public transport hubs. There has been a reluctance in Europe to download contact tracing apps and citizens are concerned that tracing their movements will affect personal privacy. However, if access to flights and entertainment venues is restricted to those who have downloaded the relevant app, there will be an incentive to comply. Some countries are worried that this might stigmatize and discriminate certain groups. We expect that privacy protections will be built into the apps and communicated as part of the promotion campaigns.

Until 1996 it wasn’t necessary to present identification when flying, and travellers often flew under each other’s names for frequent flyer programmes. Prior to 9/11 airport screening was very lax and inconsistent. We quickly adjusted to presenting our ID’s, taking off our shoes and keeping our boarding passes on our phones.  Similarly, we believe behaviour patterns (including the adoption of AOKPass or usage of contact tracing apps) could change.

Travel infrastructure will also evolve to adapt to the situation as crowded and poorly ventilated spaces are increasingly recognised as posing a risk of contagion. New facilities will be built and older facilities will likely be gradually retrofitted with better ventilation and air-disinfection systems.

Our experts’ predictions:

  • Domestic travel in China has been doing extremely well. They are leading the recovery and have already recovered to pre-crisis levels.
  • We are hopeful that the vaccination rollout will allow for greater travel during the western-hemisphere's summer. The US will likely have a fairly good season should the numbers continue in the direction they are in.
  • Globally, as explored in our Risk Outlook, the pandemic will continue to exacerbate security issues driven by economic turbulence, fuelling protests, crime, and geopolitical tensions, amongst others. Systemic issues, around the proliferation of mis and disinformation – again heightened during and as a result of the pandemic – will also fuel societal tensions, and a variety of negative security trends, which may impact travel and require mitigation.
  • In Europe, leisure and low-cost airlines are hoping to see a boost. Travel search sites showed a boost in searches when the vaccine started getting deployed, but lock downs and border restrictions continue.
  • Companies will need to keep in mind that to travel out of the country their workforce will likely still need proof of a negative COVID-19 test or to quarantine for some time. Eventually they will likely need proof of a vaccination. This requirement is not going away anytime soon.

Our experts’ top recommendations

1. Remain informed

The pandemic has impacted the security, medical and global logistical environments severely. As the pandemic and its second and third order consequences impact on locations’ underlying security dynamics, for example, they may give rise to situations that require enhanced evacuation, or relocation, for which enhanced preparedness is key. Logistically, in these constantly changing times, it is crucial to remain well informed of the latest restrictions, regulations and travel requirements. Even within the same country, regulations can change from one region to another and can impact your workforce’s domestic travels significantly. Make sure you access and communicate reliable and up-to-date security intelligence and analysis, in addition to logistical information to your people for them to comply with local regulations. On-the-ground experts are often best placed to provide with real-time and actionable intelligence for your workforce to access accurate and timely information and get fully prepared.

2. Educate your people for safe travels 

Before any travel, an organisation should assess the medical, security and logistical situation in the destination country and ensure that, based on profile and itinerary-specific threats, an appropriate risk assessment is carried out. This likely vary based on both traveller profile and destination country, factoring in the ambient security and medical threats, for example. More broadly, we recommend to only maintain essential travel where all the preventive measures should be adopted including regular hand washing or sanitizing, maintained social distancing as much as possible and wearing masks. Ensure your workforce is aware of the specific local requirements on masks, social distancing, potential security threats and the local COVID-19 situation. They must also be familiar with the associated travel restrictions (quarantine requirements, screening at the airports and other procedures) both at their destination and home country. When flying, we also suggest sitting in the front of the aircraft and boarding last if possible. The reason is while an aircraft cabin has air filtration systems, those systems are not running while parked at the gate during boarding and disembarking. Last on first off is a good rule to follow.

3. Mitigate the risks

From implementing a new travel policy to building a COVID-19 vaccination programme, your return-to-travel journey can be a complex process to put in place where every step has to be thought through strategically. Ensure to capture all the elements with a comprehensive and integrated approach, considering both health and security risks.

  1. International SOS Assistance Centre Case Data