Comment: We must collaborate on refunds

Failure to do so a zero-sum game, warns Clive Wratten, BTA chief executive

Many of us are entering our fifth week of working remotely and operating businesses in a new, virtual environment.

Like all segments of the industry, the business travel sector has been massively impacted by Covid-19. It was the first to feel the pain as business travel ground to a halt at the end of February.

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When we emerge from this crisis, businesses need to be in the best possible shape to recover and resume travelling for business. To make that happen, the entire travel industry needs to be smart and collaborative now.

This is a zero-sum game – we need to cooperate up and down supply chains and share the pain among us.

Up until days ago, the Business Travel Association (BTA) was greatly concerned by many airlines’ refusal to give cash refunds.

While some carriers such as British Airways, Virgin Atlantic and Qatar Airways were being collaborative and offering the option of refunds, this was not the position across the board.

Travel management companies (TMCs) were being put in an impossible situation with their corporate customers.

At the time, our research indicated that £200 million of UK companies’ money had yet to be refunded, with many carriers only offering vouchers for future travel.

TMCs have acted with huge professionalism in the last few weeks, working day and night to repatriate business travellers.

And if airlines have made refunds available, TMCs have returned the vitally needed cash to their corporate customers, helping them stabilise their businesses at this difficult time.

There are signs the refund situation is changing for the better. In recent days, as the BTA and others have continued to engage constructively and openly with airlines, we’ve heard announcements from leading carriers that they are reconsidering their positions.

Emirates has now made refunds an option, as has Etihad Airways, and Air France-KLM is now taking a much more flexible approach.

There are still some major airlines refusing to offer refunds, but there is now an increasing level of cross supply chain cooperation.

We saw proof of that with the monthly BSP settlement, with many TMCs reporting refunds flowing back to them to be quickly passed on to corporate customers.

This increased spirit of collaboration is a positive step forward. Working together is the only way our industry is going to weather this storm.

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