Case study: Ebola and travel management

BBT talks to a buyer and TMC about arranging travel from areas affected by Ebola

British Airways’ decision in August to cancel flights between London and west Africa triggered panic in the business travel community as medical experts warned the world to prepare for a potential pandemic.

Until then, ex-pat staff working close to affected areas were going about their business normally, albeit with extra caution. But within hours of BA’s announcement, several other smaller carriers also decided to pull services to west Africa. Fear of being left behind then sparked a scramble for seats. 

Crown Agents, an international development company based in London, manages different social, political and economic projects in Sierra Leone. When the UK legacy carrier called time on its flights, three of the company’s contractors were still on the ground in the capital city Freetown.

But the situation was complicated by the fact that two of the contractors were with their families. The three workers from Canada, Rwanda and Zambia were working on three-year contracts with Sierra Leone’s National Revenue Authority (NRA).

They had been recruited as senior external managers to assist the government department build on its strategic and operational capacities. 

Julian Adey, a senior advisor at Crown Agents, takes up the story: “British Airways’ decision to withdraw flights caused alarm at other airlines operating in the region.

“So many of the ex-pat workers and some people from non-governmental organisations (NGOs) were fighting to get out before it became impossible to do so. We have a duty of care [to employees and contractors].

“The virus had spread from Guinea to Liberia and Sierra Leone, so a land cross-border evacuation was not an option. Airlines were the simplest mode of transport to get people out. So when airlines started to cancel it became a major issue,” he says.

Crown Agents has other projects in Sierra Leone that distribute essential medical products and humanitarian aid across the country, directly linked to international efforts to fight Ebola.

Those staff were not removed because of their crucial humanitarian role.

But Adey says he had to make a decision to evacuate the workers from the NRA project in a matter of hours.

“After I learned about the BA decision, I checked the FCO for advice but even the FCO had not had time to respond. So we took a corporate decision to remove our people. We contacted Statesman Travel (Crown Agents’ TMC) and asked the team to organise the evacuation.”

Melanie Gladden is one of the travel consultants from Statesman Travel responsible for getting the workers and their relatives out of Sierra Leone safely. She tells Buying Business Travel that the team had to exercise all of its expertise to make sure the evacuation was effective.

“Our initial focus was to get the contractors booked on to flights as soon as possible,” she says. “But when we learned their families were also in Freetown we set about getting them on flights too. Understandably, the contractors were adamant they weren’t getting on a flight until they knew their families were safe.”

The bunfight for seats made providing this ordinarily simple service an extreme challenge for Gladden and her team.

“We were wait-listing people on as many seats as we could but it was a real challenge. The Canadian finally got home on a flight via Senegal. The Rwandan mother and her two young children ended up on a flight to the US, while the father managed to get back to their native country via Morocco.

“The Zambian family was also split up. The mother and two children were lucky to get seats on a Brussels Airlines flight to Belgium at the last minute, while the father got the last seat on a plane to Zambia via Senegal.”

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