As air-security threats grow, risk assessment flourishing

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The recent series of headline-grabbing incidents involving passenger aircraft flying near or over conflict zones has made travelers hyper-aware of the risks presented by global hot spots.

The downing of Malaysia Air 17 by a surface-to-air missile over Ukraine was followed by rocket fire that caused the FAA to temporarily ban all commercial flights from the U.S. to Tel Aviv’s Ben Gurion Airport, which in turn was followed by early speculation that militants might have caused what now appears to have been a weather-related crash in northern Mali.

Awareness is so acute in the travel industry that e-Travel Technologies, a travel risk-management company, last week signed three major new contracts — one with Travelport and two with insurance companies.

John Rose, COO of iJet, another travel risk-management company, said there are 41 conflict zones in the world right now that are causing travel concerns, most of them in western, central or north Africa, the Middle East and parts of Asia.

2014 THREAT MAPThat’s a large chunk of the world, and it presents a twofold challenge to travel agents, travel management companies (TMCs), corporations, airlines, nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) and similar entities. (Click here or on the image for a larger version of a map showing areas of significant travel-related risks, as determined by Intelliguide, sister company to Travel Weekly.) 

First, they have to minimize their travelers’ exposure to risk, a responsibility mandated in some countries (though not in the U.S.) in the form of duty-of-care laws that expand the definition of workplace safety.

Second, they have to ease anxieties of travelers and their families.

Several risk-management companies provide travel risk assessments, travel alerts and other services to help TMCs, corporations, NGOs and leisure travel agencies proactively monitor developments that could affect their clients’ travel.

Travelport and Sabre also offer security services that integrate data from travel risk-management companies with traveler information.

Pricing varies by company and client, but agencies of many types and sizes, ranging from major TMCs to home-based agencies, subscribe to services such as iJet, Intelliguide (owned by Travel Weekly’s parent, Northstar Travel Media), e-Travel Technologies and International SOS to dig deeper than news reports about what’s happening around the world.

These companies hire skilled analysts to monitor data from a wide variety of sources, including international, national and local news services, government agencies, NGOs and their own sources. Intelliguide’s risk assessment staffer, for example, has a “very strong background in government intelligence,” said Mike Fuhrman, the service’s managing editor.

Having detailed information about local events means companies can avoid sending travelers into a developing trouble spot and can bring travelers home before trouble hits. For example, companies that brought travelers home from Egypt before a military coup toppled President Mohamed Morsi last July spent just a few hundred dollars per traveler to change tickets. That’s far less expensive than an $80,000 emergency evacuation, Rose said.

The bulk of subscribers for these services are TMCs or corporations.

As of now, leisure travel agents have no legal duty to provide this sort of intelligence to their clients, according to Mark Pestronk, travel lawyer and Travel Weekly’s Legal Briefs columnist.

Even so, having that access to more detailed information can help leisure agents differentiate themselves in the marketplace. And there are affordable options.

Getting global alerts services costs about $40 a month. Agents can get this service through a subscription to Travel42, a Northstar Travel Media service providing hotel and cruise ship reviews, destination guides and travel alerts from Intelliguide. Users can filter these alerts so they see only those for regions that their clients are visiting. Subscriptions to Travel42 start at $42; for small agencies with multiple users, there is a $32 fee per additional user under the same license.

E-Travel Technologies’ entry-level product, which also includes travel alerts, starts at $40 a month, according to company President Don Churchill.

These companies offer more sophisticated products, as well, including risk-assessment reports and monitoring individual travelers while on the road and keeping in close contact with them.

One example of how agencies use this information is Salt Lake City-based Christopherson Travel, No. 27 on Travel Weekly’s 2014 Power List. It is an e-Travel Technologies subscriber and integrates that feed with its own client information.

Its agents, including leisure agents, can view maps on computers and handheld devices showing the locations of their travelers and icons representing events, which could be job actions such as strikes and sick-ins as well as major events like natural disasters or terrorism that might affect the client’s travel.

Airlines also have risk-management departments. Delta Air Lines, for example, temporarily diverted flights from Tel Aviv’s Ben Gurion Airport even before the FAA on July 22 temporarily banned U.S. carriers from flying there.

Delta sets no-fly zones over countries such as Iran, Iraq, Syria, Ukraine, Afghanistan and North Korea, making that determination independent of any geopolitical or regulatory mandate, CEO Richard Anderson told CNBC.

American Airlines spokesman Matt Miller said the carrier conducts extensive reviews and gets information from the FAA, other agencies and internal sources, including its on-the-ground personnel, and adjusts its flight plans when necessary.

United Airlines spokeswoman Mary Ryan said that the carrier constantly reviews changes to airspace advisories and complies with all prohibitions.

Dubai-based airline Emirates last week announced it will no longer fly over Iraq because of ongoing sectarian violence there.

Overall, the commercial aviation industry has ramped up its focus on the threats that conflict zones present to aviation, holding its own meeting last week on the topic. The International Civil Aviation Organization and other airline groups are creating a task force dealing with civil aviation and national security. One important goal of that task force will be to fast-track the collection and dissemination of information about potential threats.
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Follow Kate Rice on Twitter @krtravelweekly.

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