Travel disruptions – aka ‘irregular operations’ – are costly. But data and mobile technology can ease the pain
By Jerome Greer Chandler
This past fall and winter have been seasons of discontent for business travelers and airlines alike. First came a trio of horrendous hurricanes. Then a series of winter storms packing powerful winds and feet of snow slammed into the East Coast.
Last year’s season saw Texas, the Florida Keys and Puerto Rico pummeled by – in order of appearance – Hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria, resulting in US airlines axing 33,000 domestic flights. The very worst day schedule-wise was Sunday, Sept. 10, 2017, when according to the airline industry trade group Airlines for America (A4A), carriers cancelled 4,567 flights.
As this story goes to press they’re still calculating the costs even while they brace for more of winter’s wrath in the Boston-Washington travel corridor.
Data shows “the average cost per traveler per flight disruption is about $1,200,” according to Pete Harrison, marketing official with flight rebooking solution Freebird. Further analysis of Freebird’s numbers found approximately $400 of that $1,200 was lost because of travel costs, and $800 was lost in business productivity costs. “The typical company is spending an additional five to fifteen percent of their travel spend on disruptions,” says Harrison, “something that hasn’t been understood very well.”It’s difficult to nail down specific big picture costs. A4A estimates the total cost of disruptions in the United States alone at about $30 billion. Other estimates of the toll that global disruptions take range from $60 billion to $100 billion.
An Amadeus white paper concludes that last year there were over 400,000 flight cancellations worldwide. Just short of 1.5 million flights experienced a delay greater than 60 minutes. Irregular operations cost carriers approximately $35 billion in losses each year.
The airlines understand all too well the costs of IROPS. A4A looked at the cumulative losses of Delta, American, United, Southwest, JetBlue and Spirit. Together the fall 2017 hurricanes alone cost the carriers at least $589 million.
And it’s not just headline-making events that drive the numbers. The problems extend throughout the aviation industry. Vinod Varma, vice president of product strategy and experience for American Express Global Business Travel, says, “Approximately six percent of business trips will experience some sort of interruption,” ranging from mechanical to Mother Nature.
BCD Travel puts the figure a bit higher. “An estimated seven to ten percent of all flights are subject to disruption of one kind or another,” says Kim Gesch, the company’s director of product planning, traveler security and disruption services.
Conceding that it might be a “wild guess,” Markus Emmer, founder and CMO of Roadmap says, “Travel disruptions at airports only will take at least two hours per business trip. If you are a frequent business traveler this could cost you over 50 hours easily on a yearly basis.” Hitting at the heart of the matter, Emmer says, “Time is scarce and you can only use it once. My advice would be not to put a price tag on it.”
Proactive Push Ask travel professionals about how to mitigate the impact of delays and cancellations and they’ll tell you the best strategy is to be proactive. “By sheer nature of a disruption, helping a passenger navigate through options to keep them moving,” is the essence of any solution says Tammy Morgan, regional vice president for Carlson Wagonlit Travel.
Not all proactive solutions are the same, even though most apps and dashboards share a common goal of pushing out information to their travelers as quickly as possible. OAG specializes in real-time flight status data and dynamic scheduling updates. “The flight status information is tracked from some 48 hours before the flight is scheduled to operate,” says John Grant, a senior analyst for OAG. “As soon as a delay is planned, we can share that with our customers who have integrated our data into their products.”
Variations on the theme differentiate the strategies and products that are out there. However every disruption-mitigation approach rests on three pillars: Data, mobile devices and increasingly sophisticated apps.
“We take a multi-pronged approach to minimize disruption for our travelers,” says John Keichline, CEO of Reed & Mackay’s US-based operation. “First, we give our clients insightful data such as the on-time record of flights at the point of booking.” This helps business travelers avoid options that are regularly delayed – especially if they’re making a connection.
Next, Reed & Mackay keeps their business travelers informed via push notification on their smartphones “We take our data from air traffic control,” says Keichline. “We work proactively to minimize the impact of unavoidable disruption.” For example, he says, “If we know in advance that there’s a snowstorm approaching, we’re going to make sure we get our travelers on an earlier flight.” If they can’t make that earlier flight the TMC will work with their hotel to get another room night at the same rate.
BCD Travel’s Disruption Services agents monitor flights 24/7, assessing the impact of the IROPS on its individual clients. BCD automatically re-books when a simple fix is at hand. If more complex intervention is called for business travelers are alerted and given options. Either way Disruption Services updates itineraries to reflect changes – air, hotel and ground.
The immediate aim is to keep BCD’s clients away from the dreaded customer service lines at the airport. The ultimate goal, of course, is to get them on their way, either on another flight or to a sheltering hotel room.
CWT regional vice president Tammy Morgan says her TMC’s aim is to make sure “all of the flight options” are presented to its travelers, not just the ones offered by the airline.
The Well-equipped Toolkit Roadmap is a platform that aggregates existing corporate travel tools in a single consumerized traveler-centric app. “Mobile technology is key in this,” explains Roadmap’s Markus Emmer. “We created a tool that combines itinerary management with the travel programs of the big corporations and their suppliers.” Emmer adds, “People who suffer from a disruption often don’t have the right information to solve their problem.”
While mobile devices may be the key, getting to the information they carry is frequently a function of packing the right tools to deal with the challenges that present themselves. “Business travelers should pack all items necessary to remain productive even when stuck in transit,” advises American Express GBT’s Vinod Varma.
Around the increasingly disruptive planet we inhabit these days, prosaic items such as international power adapters are essential, as is a working knowledge of how to securely connect to VPNs or servers. One oft-forgotten important piece of knowledge is whether you will have cell coverage, both voice and data. Those cell phones, Varma says, “should also be programmed with numbers for the destination’s emergency services.”
Egencia senior product marketing director Jean Noel Lau Keng Lun suggests “having a power cable with you and charging your mobile devices at every opportunity. Consider having a back-up battery in case power plugs are not available.”
Not all disruptions come from Mother Nature. Humankind has seen to that, as the recent airport terror attacks in Brussels, Amsterdam and Istanbul attest. TMCs such as Egencia “actively monitor international incidents and possible threats that could affect travelers. This information is updated every 20 minutes,” says Lau Keng Lun.
By far, however, it’s the weather and inefficiencies in air traffic control that either bring the system to a flat out halt or structurally slow things down.
Mitigating IROPS impact is important. But how about avoiding delays and cancellations altogether? Bala Chandran, who is CEO and co-founder of Lumo, formerly Flightsayer, contends that “the fundamental problem with the current system is that today’s disruption management strategies are reactive,” not really proactive.
Chandran argues that the strategies such as booking morning flights to avoid thunderstorm-induced delays are essentially “buffering” instruments. Such “rule-of-thumb strategies simply don’t work well,” he says. “What’s needed is a comprehensive analysis of the data,” a fine-grain picture of what’s happening up there in the heavens so business travelers can make better choices.
Lumo’s candidate in this arena is a scoring system that rates every flight on a one to ten risk index scale. It can be used by TMCs at time of booking to avoid, not merely mitigate, delays. Chandran says Lumo can track a passenger’s flight and let them know hours or even days before departure if their flight is at risk of delay, and if so, what their alternatives are.
Chandran says pilot studies it’s conducted indicate that simply choosing a lower-risk flight that pushes back from the gate an hour before or after a traveler’s desired departure time can eliminate one in twenty delays. The Lumo founder and chief executive officer concedes that a five percent edge “may not sound like much,” but it has potentially “massive financial implications.”
Studies with TMCs and larger corporate travel programs indicate that Lumo can predict 20 to 25 percent of all delays – before they’re announced by the airlines. Adelman Travel has integrated Lumo into its app and handful of other TMCs are employing its data to more proactively manage IROPS for their travelers.
Data Drives Decisions The motive force behind all this proactivity, of course, is data. Robyn Grassanovits, vice president of traveler services at aviation data and analytics firm FlightGlobal, says the company is “leveraging our strengths in monitoring very large data sets.” Data in hand, it can alert its customers to issues affecting their fliers. “It’s all about getting the right information, into the right hands at the right time,” she says.
So important is the IROPS issue that FlightGlobal has created Travel Waiver Services. The company works with the carriers to collect their policy exception waivers and identify the trips that match the terms of the waiver. They then use this insight to alert TMCs so they can push the word out to their clients whose fliers are likely to be affected by IROPS.
Getting the word out to fliers fast is the sine qua non of the race TMCs are running right now. Beating the airlines to the punch in notifying their own customers – before the carriers can – is the sweet prize. Speed is a delay-slayer for chosen travelers.
It’s not that the airlines aren’t getting better at the game – they are. Flights are proactively cancelled hours, sometimes days, before a predicted weather event. They’re also getting better at spelling out the intricacies of rebooking for their partner airlines.
Rebooking partners when IROPS occur is the latest stitch in the seamless fabric of at least one alliance. SkyTeam Rebooking has managed to “overcome the complexity of connecting different airline systems,” according to a company release. It’s available initially at 43 airports and will later be operational across the entire SkyTeam system.
“Customers affected by disruption to their travel plans can present themselves at a SkyTeam member airline’s ticket or transfer desk up to 48 hours before departure to be rerouted on to the next available SkyTeam flight,” the release states.
SkyTeam CEO Perry Cantarutti puts it best – not just for his alliance carriers, but for the travel industry as a whole: “Irregular operations are a moment of truth for airlines, and a critical opportunity to demonstrate customer centricity.”