Business travel in the U.S. took an upturn in June, according to our data here at DATABASICS. We do expense reporting for a wide spectrum of organizations and have developed an activity index (we call it the DATABASICS Estimate of Business Travel Index, or the “DEBTI,” for short) based on numbers of expense reports filed by a sampling of our customers.
The index rose 18% off deeply depressed April-May levels. The increase in the DEBTI in the U.S. seems to track with reopenings; however, the recent explosion in COVID-19 cases across the Sunbelt would suggest that the DEBTI’s gains (and maybe more) will be surrendered in July. Business travel, particularly by air, appears to be facing a very bumpy flight.
Still, business air travel is critical to many organizations, and they are now evaluating to what extent they should resume it. We have all been experimenting with substitutes more or less successfully, but no organization wants to be stuck in Zoom-mode when its competitors are exchanging in-person bows with prospects. So how do we go about protecting our employees who fly (and those with whom they have contact!)?
The question falls under the employer’s obligation to keep employees safe, otherwise known as “Duty of Care.” Duty of Care, with respect to travel, has largely focused on what happens after the employee steps off the plane. With occasional exceptions, such as the Boeing 737 Max, so long as employees flew commercially in the U.S., flying was considered reasonably safe. Now, though, with COVID-19, we may need to look more carefully at which airlines we authorize for use, if we are convinced that commercial air travel does not inherently carry unacceptable risks.
The major differentiators for airlines at this point with respect to COVID-19 are mask enforcement, seating and overall capacity, and temperature checking. The reason why there are any differentiators at all is that FAA has left COVID-19 protection to the airlines. According to FAA Administrator Stephen Dickson, health concerns are the CDC’s responsibility, not his (USA Today, June 17, 2020).
Masks are generally mandated by airlines, except for Allegiant and Sun Country (Forbes, June 19, 2020). The mandates, however, have a cut-out for eating, drinking, children and special situations. That leaves the door largely open for transmission, since the virus doesn’t care what you are doing or whether wearing a mask would constitute a hardship to you. On top of that, a spokesman for the Allied Pilots Association says passengers can be lax, letting their masks slip off their nose, for example. Flight attendants (and airlines), he cautions, without an FAA mandate, vary in how far they will go to enforce proper masking (USA Today, July 9, 2020).
Seat blocking (the middle seat or aisle seat depending on the size of the plane), as well as overall capacity restrictions, are rapidly evolving. Forbes in mid-June identified Alaska, Delta, Hawaiian, JetBlue and Southwest as the only airlines blocking seats. Frontier Airlines seemed to be alone in pioneering temperature checks. Capacity limits have been announced by numerous carriers, but in many cases, these limits have proved more an aspiration than a commitment.
This leaves business travelers…where? Taking a hard look at the FAA’s laissez-faire approach to the airlines’ protection of the health of your employees, it seems that allowing your employees to fly at this point does not meet the Duty of Care standard. If we really want to open up as a country, we have to insist that the FAA step up.
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