Unused, unflown and unrefunded tickets are one of the most technically difficult challenges emerging in the business travel world. Data is sometimes lacking, it’s often manually extracted, and it’s often in the form of raw data. If you haven’t yet, read through Part 1 of this post where I walked through two of the main challenges: Finding out what happened to disrupted trips and finding out what happened to the associated spend or refund.
Phase 2: Travel picking back up
Having walked through Phase 1: The peak of the first wave, we need to start looking at the current phase and what we expect to see after that.
In the past month or so, we are seeing just the early signs of recovery for travel. We are all hopeful that travel can soon be back on its feet, though we can expect muddled progress through potential second and third waves of COVID-19. It’ll likely feel like ‘two steps forward – one step back’.
The recovery of travel is thought to also come with a third challenge – a risk. To understand the risk, let’s go back in time to March. The pandemic had just hit a significant portion of the travel world, and airlines had to immediately cancel many of their flights. At that time many airlines were looking to retain as much cash as possible so to help them through the forecast recession with next to zero revenue. Airlines were providing travelers with a “voucher” for future use. In some cases, where governments stepped in to require airlines to offer a refund, they could have in addition proposed a voucher with potentially more favorable terms (from a technical perspective – this could be captured as an Unused Tickets). Instructions for reclaiming the vouchers could have sometimes referred the travelers to the airline’s web site.
The risk of business travelers receiving vouchers directly from the airlines is that they could reclaim it directly with the airlines. In such case the flight will likely not be monitored by the TMC and the Travel Manager will many times not have visibility to the fact that it is happening. This puts the company and its travelers at risk in terms of ensuring the traveler’s safety bypassing a Duty of Care. It is intimidating to think of a scenario of a (positive) quick travel recovery where hundreds of flights unfortunately happen off-program/off-channel by travelers directly re-using vouchers with airlines, and then a second/third wave of COVID-19 hitting and endangering company’s travelers, without the company even being aware that the travelers are on trip.
Beyond the risk of safety and security, there is also a slight but potential risk of improper or even dishonest use of the voucher – for their own personal trips. This could even happen by travelers who have been let go by the company and have not “returned” their voucher to their manager upon their leaving.
Not all TMCs are able to provide visibility into such direct off-program use of vouchers, which may be putting their clients at such risk. Travel Managers may need to seek technology help from one of their TMC’s partners, or from a 3rd party provider.
Phase 3: Air travel is back
Ultimately, travel will be back. It might take longer than we would have hoped, it will almost certainly be a bumpy ride. It might be at a lower level than in 2019. But it will be back. And with that, much of the Unused Tickets would have been used, hence visibility would no longer be a significant challenge, nor would be the risk of their off-program utilization.
With flights back to normal, the airlines would no longer be expected to hold off on expiration of Unused Tickets. With a large volume of these tickets created due to the canceled March-April flights will now reach its expiration date, likely somewhere in 2021. And with that, the challenge of reducing expiration of Unused Tickets, is at its full relevancy. Ensuring that year-old Unused Tickets, which commonly have an expiration date set 12 months ahead – won’t end up expiring due to lack of visibility, especially when there isn’t really an opportunity to exchange them for new trips. Whilst ticket expiry dates have been extended, it doesn’t change the common narrative I’m hearing day after day on exploratory calls, “I just can’t get a report to know when they [airline tickets] expire”.
Travel Managers will want to ensure that their TMCs are optimally matching Unused Tickets to new flights with which they could be utilized and exchanged.
These are unique times that bring novel challenges never occurring before at such a scale. Will the future pan out as I captured it above, and entail the challenges that I’ve portrayed? Some will likely materialize while the rest will likely unfold in a different way. In any case I’d like to encourage Travel Managers to invest some of their time in playing out the travel world one year ahead, and making sure they are prepared to the new challenges yet to come.