Each year it is my inestimable privilege to contribute features to Buying Business Travel’s corporate cards supplement, the 2015 specimen of which is published with this very issue. And each year, after researching said articles, I emerge considerably older, but also wiser on issues which have little to do with payments.
This time round I gained insights on data protection fears, Euroscepticism, and barbarisms inflicted on the English language by corporate-speak. Want to hear about them?
Here’s the first. Another annual institution of this august publication is the BBT Hotlist, recognising ‘drivers of change’ in the travel industry. One name missing from this year’s list, and indeed its predecessors, was someone who has had a profound effect on corporate thinking: the renegade US intelligence analyst Edward Snowden.
Whether you believe him to be a traitor or hero (or both), his revelations of US global monitoring of data, including through private networks, have had global ramifications – known as the ‘Snowden effect’.
One aspect of this is that many businesses in Europe have sought to avoid their data being stored in the US, where, justifiably or not, they fear the government could easily obtain unwarranted access to the information.
I have come across stories of the Snowden effect influencing travel a few times over the last year or so: usually, it takes the form of security and senior management at European companies showing much greater interest in what happens to their booking and transaction data.
Travel managers say they are receiving more enquiries from ‘upstairs’ on these matters, and some industry professionals have gone so far as to suggest corporate customers are looking to avoid US-based service providers for this reason.
Initially, I learned about the Snowden effect in connection with travel management companies, global distribution systems and online booking tools. But I mention the subject now because it came up again for corporate cards: one interviewee suggested security departments are increasingly intervening in card requests-for-proposal, especially to learn which side of the Atlantic card data is stored.
The story prompts questions to which I don’t yet have confident answers. First, how widespread are data concerns? German travel managers I speak to seem especially worried about data going to the US, and I have heard of similar anxieties in Switzerland and the Nordics. In the UK, there seems less concern or even awareness.
Second, is there any cause to be worried? Is the US government both wishing and able to access US-housed commercial databases to learn where European executives are travelling, plus other confidential information? Or is this an example of unfounded anti-American paranoia? And would the data really be safer in Europe? I would love some answers. If you have any, do let me know.
The UK has much stronger data protection than the US, thanks to being in the European Union (EU), which has just about the toughest regulations anywhere on information privacy. But as I write these words a general election looms in which the Conservatives have pledged a referendum on EU membership in the next Parliament. If that was to happen, anyone contemplating voting to quit the EU might care to study some data given to me for BBT’s corporate card supplement: an Airplus International breakdown of where its customers (all business travellers) fly. The percentage of Italians flying to European destinations outside their own country is 34 per cent, while for Germany and France it is 35 per cent and 36 per cent respectively. The UK figure is 58 per cent – an enormous slice of this country’s trade to risk losing.
Finally, I would like to remind one company interviewed for the supplement that ‘onboard’ remains an adjective, not a verb. If anyone ventures to suggest otherwise, I will happily ‘unboard’ them from a ship in the Atlantic with the one volume of the Shorter Oxford English Dictionary attached to their left foot, and the other to their right.
Amon Cohen is a specialist business travel writer, conference moderator and media trainer