SARS epidemic 'grounding business travel'


Concern about the severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) epidemic is grounding business travel.

Travel from the USA to the Pacific is down 25 per cent according to US trade group the Air Transport Association. Meanwhile, the Business Travel Coalition reports that more than half of US corporations (58 per cent) have banned travel to specific Asian countries.

In a separate survey by the US National Business Travel Association, more than 67 per cent of travel managers said their organisations had cut trips because of a combination of war, heightened terrorist alerts, SARS and the economic downturn.

SARS is a highly contagious respiratory disease thought to have originated in China. It has led the World Health Organisation to issue its first-ever global advisory, recommending the postponement of all but essential travel to Hong Kong and China's Guangdong province.

Cases have also been reported in Ontario, Canada, as well as in Singapore, Taiwan, Thailand and Vietnam. Six cases have been reported in the UK and in Germany and nearly 200 in the USA.

For an airline industry already reeling from economic woes and war in Iraq, the SARS outbreak could not have come at a worse time. According to a BTC survey in March 2003, the war caused half of US corporations to tighten pre-approval processes for international travel while nearly one in five had already banned international travel altogether. US Airways and United Airlines have both been forced into bankruptcy protection, hit by a post-September 11 slump that has seen airline passenger revenues fall from 0.95 per cent of US GDP to 0.7 per cent.

For their latest SARS survey, the BTC polled 144 Fortune 500 corporations and other large organisations averaging 29 roundtrips to Asian countries per month. Between them, these organisations are estimated to spend more than half a million dollars each day on airline tickets to Asian countries.

The survey revealed that 58 per cent have banned all travel to Asia, and of these, 97 percent had banned travel "until further notice". Only 7 per cent of participants said that their corporations were taking no action. The remaining third were providing advisories and guidance regarding travel to Asian countries.

In addition to China, Hong Kong, Singapore and Vietnam, participants identified Taiwan, Toronto and Thailand as other banned destinations.

"The SARS information signs at Canadian Customs are a bit unnerving as you arrive," said the CEO of one US company "There are quite a number of fellow travellers that don their [surgical] masks as soon as the plane lands."

Wal-Mart, the world's largest retailer, has cancelled all nonessential travel to Toronto, China, Hong Kong, Singapore and Vietnam. The company is also asking employees who return to the United States from those areas to work from home for 10 days in a sort of ‘self-imposed quarantine’.

“We are asking people not to travel to these areas unless absolutely critical,” said a participant in the BTC survey. Another said that they had “put a Travel Advisory to Toronto in place. Considering a ban to Asia. Singapore office has suspended travel outside of that country.”

But if the comments made to the BTC survey are anything to go by, sympathy for the ailing airline industry is in short supply. “The airlines continue to put their heads in the sand on this issue,” said one. “If airlines had stepped up and convinced us their aircraft were safe, we may not have banned travel.”