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Firms Plan to Cut Travel if War Starts

March 17, 2003|Nicole Ziegler Dizon | Associated Press

Aric Peters packed his bags last week for a business trip to Indonesia, but he's ready to hop the first plane back to Kansas if the United States goes to war with Iraq -- and stay home until the conflict ends.

Corporate travel managers say more and more businesses are preparing to postpone or cancel trips as the threat of war looms. Others are revising travel policies to make sure they know where their employees are and how to get them home quickly.

"From here on out, our travel is probably going to slow a great deal, especially if the war starts," said Peters, who often goes overseas as international sales manager for Olathe, Kan.-based aerospace and defense contractor Butler National Corp.

His company already has put off planned trips to the Middle East and probably will rely more heavily on telephones and computers to keep in touch with clients in case of war, Peters said. He left for Indonesia on Thursday but isn't sure whether he'll make a planned trip to Singapore next month.

A survey of 151 companies last month by the National Business Travel Assn. found that more than 60% planned to evaluate business trips on a case-by-case basis if war begins; about a quarter said they would increase the use of teleconferencing.

Although 61% said they had no immediate plans to reduce travel, travel planners said they expect to see a drop-off in business trips if the United States goes to war with Iraq.

First Data Corp., an international payment services company in Greenwood Village, Colo., isn't taking any chances. The company banned international travel for its U.S. employees last week and instructed those overseas to return.

"The safety and security of our employees is of paramount importance at all times, but particularly now," spokesman Greg Rossiter said.

Alex Wasilov, president of Rosenbluth International, a global corporate travel management company in Philadelphia, said he expected businesses to cut international travel by 10% to 20% and domestic trips by 5% to 10% after the start of a war.

Wasilov said he was hopeful that any conflict would be short and that business travel would resume. Even so, he said, corporate clients are making provisions to stick closer to home if war begins.

"Certainly all of our clients are looking for airlines, hotels and car rental agencies to be more flexible in terms of cancellations," he said.

The major airlines, struggling with losses since travel dropped off after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, are doing what they can to encourage people to keep flying. They have announced policies that generally eliminate penalties for travelers who reschedule flights in the event of war.

The airlines say a war with Iraq would cost them $10.7 billion and force them to cancel nearly 10% of daily flights.

With the possibility of war, businesses also are more strictly enforcing corporate travel policies, which often call for employees to schedule trips through a preferred agent.

Chris Bomze, director of market planning for TQ3 Travel Solutions, a global travel manager in St. Louis, said she saw the emphasis on such policies increase after the Sept. 11 attacks and again in the last few months.

Bomze and Wasilov both said their companies offer tracking systems so employers can find out, with the click of a computer mouse, where their workers are supposed to be and when they are supposed to be there. They also coordinate contact numbers and virtual meeting places so employees can check in during an emergency.

Travel managers also are becoming more receptive to incorporating video, computer or teleconferencing into corporate travel policies, Bomze said.

Ken Hayward, chairman and chief executive of V-Span, a King of Prussia, Pa.-based provider of conferencing services, said his industry still was in its infancy during the 1991 Persian Gulf War and had to scramble to keep up with demand.

Conferencing businesses are more prepared this time to step in if businesses ban travel because of war, Hayward said.

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