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Tom Otley

Ask the Travel Manager

Each month, we put questions to the travel manager. This month’s topic…

In the light of the airline tragedies of last year, and the constant need our company has to cut travel budgets, how can I be sure you choose safe carriers?

It’s a question we have been getting throughout the year and of course with the news about the Air Asia flight at the end of December, I expect it will continue for some months to come.

To answer your question directly, we do everything we can to make sure that all employees are safe, whether on airlines, staying in hotels, or using ground transport to and from the airport or indeed just driving around the country. As you’d expect, there are lists of carriers which have poor safety records, and companies sometimes have their own lists over and above these, perhaps because they are relying on information given by third party security companies they might employ.

What’s troubling about these incidents is that in all the most-publicised cases from last years, none of those airlines would have been on any of those lists, and indeed until the accidents they all had very good safety records. I know that after the Malaysia accidents, some companies did not compel flyers to use Malaysia Airlines, even if it was the lowest cost, but then I think it’s clear that so far as the second aircraft loss of MH17 over the Ukraine was concerned, Malaysia Airlines was following an approved route and it could well have been one of several other well-known carriers flying over that area along the same route that was caught in the same way.

As far as Air Asia is concerned, there is no general rule that low cost carriers have cut safety and indeed in Europe Ryanair and Easyjet are the two largest short-haul airlines, while in the U.S Southwest has an excellent safety record. There’s also no proof that Asian carriers are less safe.

I’d also point out that these issues might not be down just to the airlines, but the congestion occurring in Asian airspace generally, and the civil aviation capabilities in places such as Indonesia to handle traffic and safe pilot requests for deviations. When it becomes a macro problem such as this, there is little a travel manager can do apart from follow advice when it is available. I know that some travel managers were concerned after the head of Total Oil was killed in a private jet crash last year, since although their travellers might be in their private jet company, they can’t do any investigation over how safe the airport is that the jet might end up using.

That incident would seem to accord with what we have always been told – namely that the most dangerous part of a flight is the take-off and landing. Yet since the Air France incident out of Brazil we have now had several accidents that occurred at altitude. From an infrastructure perspective and pilot training as more pilots are needed to handle the increase in planes coming online, I think that’s something that needs looking at and I know ACTE is concerned about it.

Some frequent travellers might feel that their travel manager is a little naive when it comes to booking carriers, because many of them are desk-based and aren’t out there in the field seeing what some of those carriers are like, but it’s equally true that many of them are experienced travellers, and all of them do the due diligence.

No travel manager would put their travellers at increased risk to save money, but both Malaysia Airlines and Air Asia have shown us that the new unpredictable factor are the selection of air routes and congested airspace which travel managers can’t control on behalf of their travellers.

Lastly I’d say if an employee’s job involves travel, and they feel that the tragedies of last year are causing them stress, then they should speak to both their travel manager and possibly their human resources team to see if there’s any help they can get, whether that’s changing the pattern of travel, or perhaps even investigating Fear of Flying style courses or Cognitive Behavioural Training. It was a horrible year for those impacted directly by the tragedies we saw, but airlines’ safety has improved year-on-year and last year was the safest ever according to statistics I’ve seen.

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