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Focus on keeping US safe but open for business as Trump ban II lands


Michael McCormick, GBTA Picture: Michael D. Golden

Michael McCormick, GBTA Picture: Michael D. Golden

Michael McCormick, GBTA Picture: Michael D. Golden

President Trump's revised and watered-down travel ban hasn't caused the online furore of its predecessor, but it's still a massive issue for global business travellers.

A new survey of its US and European members by the Global Business Travel Association (GBTA) found that 41pc fear traveller harassment with the new order; more than one-in-three worry about uncertainty over green cards and visas; while 34pc are concerned about tit-for-tat harassment of US travellers in Middle Eastern countries.

And just short of half (44pc) of European travel professionals report that their companies have employees who travel to the US who could be affected by the new Trump order.

If implemented by next Thursday, would-be visitors and immigrants from Iran, Syria, Somalia, Sudan, Yemen and Libya will be affected.

The GBTA estimated that approximately $185m worth of business travel bookings were lost in the US as a direct result of the initial ban, and advocates keeping America open to business while still maintaining safe borders.

"The executive ban that was initially written was so broad and impacted many travellers and people who were low risk and had gone through the proper processes it didn't make any sense," Irish-American GBTA head Michael McCormick, inset, told the Sunday Independent from the organisation's headquarters in Virginia. "It was done as a surprise to the travelling community and also the people who were there to implement it. The programmes we do have in place, like visa waiver, are critical. They allow countries who are co-operating and have the same objectives in term of maintaining high levels of security to work well together. We've got programmes that are good that can even be better if we continue to invest in them, like pre-check, and visa waiver is at the core of that," he said.

"We took one step backwards, but fortunately it doesn't have to be permanent."

He said business organisations in the US are lobbying to ensure business travel isn't impacted further, and added: "The approach we took was to be factual and work to educate everyone involved. The security of our airports is a top, top priority but it's got to be done the right way. There are certainly countries and parts of the world that our agencies need to focus on because they represent high risk," he added, but said the efforts around this must be "focused on programmes and ongoing work that clearly identifies high-risk areas and continues to look to improve screening and makes sure all passengers are safe and secure".

The organisation does believe that Trump could help the industry. "Certainly all of the messaging from the administration is that there is going to be big investment into travel infrastructure and that we will get a healthy part of that expenditure - but it's only an idea at this point. Plans need to be created, and most importantly Congress has to fund it. We're still a good bit away from that funding being appropriated."

But McCormick does see areas that need dollars now. "We think air traffic modernisation is number one on the list. The systems are clearly antiquated - we are using the same radar and systems from the 1950s. There's also a very clear return on investment in fuel savings, time savings, more efficient used of facilities, period," he said.

He said airports need a shake-up but said "increasing the fees that passengers pay is not the answer. We've been paying and paying as passengers with high fees on airline tickets and that money just hasn't been spent. It's been used to offset budget deficits and used for other things but not the things they're needed for".

Meanwhile, unlike his counterparts in the leisure sector from the US Travel Association, he's only giving a guarded welcome to the arrival of new routes from Ireland to the US with Norwegian - a development that has been criticised by US airline unions and some members of Congress. "As always, buyers are always looking for competition, for choice for alternatives. For us we have to walk the balance between that and making sure that it's responsible competition," he said.

"In other sectors we have to be mindful of the fact that there are alternatives like ride-sharing and home-sharing that have impacted the business travel community. Generally, as long as it's fair competition and more product choice, that's good for buyers. We have to watch it closely. We're not the arbiters of what's fair - that's for the government agencies to decide - but that's the key. As long as it's fair competition we're all for it."

■ To Schengen or not to Schengen, that is the question. The Irish Tourist Industry Confederation (ITIC) believes we might have to start thinking outside the box if Brexit results in a hard border and the ending of the common travel area (CTA) with the UK.

Under Schengen, 26 EU nations - including France, Germany and Spain - have a common travel area, without border or passport controls. The migration crisis and security concerns have affected this, albeit on a temporary basis.

At an ITIC Brexit briefing this week, ceo Eoghan O'Mara Walsh and chairman Paul Gallagher voiced fears over access for business and leisure travellers if the CTA is hit. "UK visa waiver schemes that allow Asian and Middle Eastern travellers to come here unimpeded would have to renegotiated," said O'Mara Walsh. On joining Schengen, Gallagher said "we have to protect ourselves".

The worst-case scenario looks bleak for Irish trade with Britain. Irish Ferries planning manager Nick Mottram warned of the gathering of "7km tailbacks of trucks" at Holyhead if full customs checks are implemented using the current technology.

■ Is Brexit already having an effect on travel to and from Britain? Last February, UK-Irish passenger numbers rose 19pc to 752,000.

This year's corresponding figure is 750.000. Granted, it's only a slight dip (and 2016 was a leap year, with one day fewer), but watch this space.

Sunday Indo Business