Travel Agents

“Plan for six, pray for four and hope for two”: AFTA boss’ advice to agents amid COVID-19 epidemic

Christian Fleetwood

Christian Fleetwood

Jayson Westbury believes it will be six months before travel agent impacts associated with coronavirus subside, as a slowdown in travel to the Asia Pacific continues.

At least US$29 billion ($43.8 billion) is expected to be wiped from the aviation community’s bottom line due to coronavirus (COVID-19), according to Australian Federation of Travel Agents’ chief executive.

His comments refer to communications from the International Air Transport Association (IATA), in which US$27 billion ($40.8 billion) of the impact is in the Asia Pacific region, figures Westbury cited that factored in predictions of the impacts to China, he said, where 86 per cent of all cases of COVID-19 have been confirmed.

“As we all know, Asia Pacific is not China,” Westbury said at MTA – Mobile Travel Agents’ 2020 Conference. “We are really two very different regions, but we have been clustered.

“And many of your clients and customers may have been saying to you they want to change their destination from an Asian destination, because of the ‘guilty by association’ that’s gone on.”

Travel Weekly has contacted IATA for comment.

According to the World Health Organization’s (WHO) latest situation report, 93,090 COVID-19 cases have been confirmed around the world – 80,422 of which are in China.

In Asia Pacific, there are multiple countries with fewer laboratory-confirmed cases of COVID-19 than Australia, and some of the lowest in the world.

These include the Philippines, New Zealand, Cambodia, India, Indonesia, Nepal, and Sri Lanka, which all have fewer than 10 reported cases per country, according to WHO.

The health authority, however, maintains the risk of infection internationally remains ‘very high’ – its top level of risk assessment.

Despite concerns, Westbury believes the risks and impacts to the day-to-day working life of agents due to COVID-19 will last for months, and advised agents to “plan for six, pray for four and hope for two”.

“I think given the decision that the prime minister has just made to effectively take us into preemptive ‘crisis mode’ is going to have a bigger wobble than he is thinking about,” he said.

“I understand the desire to get advance of what might come in terms of a pandemic being declared. I think the issue around the declaration of a pandemic if in fact the WHO goes down that path will have an immediate further impact.

“There are a lot of people lobbying to ensure we don’t get to pandemic.”

Westbury also offered his advice to agents asked by their clients on whether to travel or not: “At the moment, everything is coming out of Wuhan, and there has been very little person-to-person transmittal throughout the globe.

“What do you tell people when someone says, ‘should I book, should I cancel?’, I think what we’ve said is ‘check first and act second’, meaning have a look at the termination or cancellation arrangements.

“If it’s not in the immediate future, tell that person to just wait until that last day.”

The AFTA boss also advised his organisation would consider putting together a helpful guide for agents on how to talk about COVID-19 to their clients. At this stage, a confirmation of this has not been circulated, nor a date for when travel professionals could expect such material.

Travel Weekly has contacted AFTA for comment.

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