FLY THE NATION’S UNFRIENDLY SKIES
By Joe Brancatelli
September 30, 2008 --The nation's financial upheaval has sucked so much oxygen out of the room that we've barely gotten coverage of a horrific bombing of the Marriott in Islamabad 10 days ago and the September 17 attack on the U.S. Embassy in Sana'a, Yemen.
But out of media sight is not out of business travelers' minds. We know what this stuff means to our lives on the road. We all have a playbook, a set of time-tested rules honed during a generation of terrorism aimed at travelers in general and U.S. business travelers in specific.
Shorn of politics, polemics, and the ideology, staying safe when traveling internationally often starts with a simple assumption: Avoid anything that smacks of U.S. capitalism. U.S. flag airlines, lodgings flying the flag of an American hotel chain, and even American fast-food outlets have disproportionately been targets of terrorists in the last 40 years.
The Islamabad bombing on September 20 is a textbook example. The hotel building is owned by a Pakistani businessman. The heavily guarded property is just a few hundred yards from the prime minister's residence. The bombers seemed interested in making a statement about internal Pakistani politics. Most of the hundreds who were killed and wounded were not Americans. But the Marriott name drew business travelers from around the world and made the bombing more newsworthy, because it was seen as an attack on an icon of U.S. business.
America's high-profile allies often pay too. No U.S. airline serves Pakistan, but British Airways got the message. Two days after the Marriott bombing, B.A. canceled its flights from London to Islamabad indefinitely.
"I've put British airlines and hotels on the 'do not use' list too," the travel manager of a major multinational corporation told me last week. "I think our experienced travelers knew instinctively without being told, but our newbies need to be reminded. In troubled times, you lower your profile and avoid as many symbols of Western commerce and culture as you can."
Back in the day, that often meant switching from a U.S. airline to a "neutral" carrier like Swissair; KLM, the Dutch airline; or SAS, the international airline of Scandinavia. But Swissair is out of business. SAS is less omnipresent than it used to be, and KLM is now part of a company controlled by Air France—and has issues, as vividly shown by last week's on-board terrorist arrests at a German airport. These days, travel managers tell me, the neutral airlines are carriers such as Singapore Air or Air Canada, which offers decent worldwide connections via its Toronto hub. Lufthansa and Japan Airlines are also perceived to be safe, although it's worth nothing that no carrier is immune to a potential terrorist attack.
Many travel managers and security consultants I know recommend their clients use hotels that cater to Japanese business travelers. Japanese travelers are especially sensitive to personal security, and Japanese corporations conduct extensive safety audits of hotels where they book top executives.
Unfortunately, the world's terrorists aren't focused solely on U.S. icons, so you need to do a lot of work to minimize your risk. Here are some tips that have proven valuable in previous periods of travel insecurity.
Get Better Global Intelligence
U.S. news outlets do a poor job of covering international affairs. Americans have been told nothing about a recent resurgence of violence in Spain blamed on ETA, the Basque separatist group. An alarming upswing in crime and kidnappings in Mexico's largest cities has been ignored too. Even relatively savvy U.S. travelers may not have heard about the instability in Bolivia, which has become so severe that American Airlines last week suspended its flights there.
To fill the information gap, start with the country-specific data sheets published by the U.S. State Department. To offset any perceived bias (some critics claim that the State Department is too hard on our adversaries and turns a blind eye to troubles in countries we consider allies), check with the similar services offered by the British, Canadian, and Australian governments. The C.I.A.'s World Factbook is also useful.
You needn't rely solely on government sources, of course. The BBC's news-gathering operation is available online, and I adore MediaHopper.com, which links to more than 1,800 global TV streams, including useful news channels in dozens of languages. And if you travel overseas regularly, get on the HotSpots mailing list of the ASI Group. The free newsletter offers a daily snapshot of breaking travel and security news around the world.
Rely on the Locals
Even if you have help from a corporate travel department and do your own homework, make sure to consult your most valuable resource: The people on the ground where you're headed. Whether it's a branch office or a potential client, locals usually have the best advice . They'll often be more frank on a one-on-one basis, so contact them individually via a personal mobile phone or private email address.
Lower Your Profile
Dress casually, not like a well-to-do executive. Leave expensive luggage, high-priced clothing, and the bling at home. Don't advertise your name or company affiliation by using your business card as your luggage tag. Needless to say, don't take risks you wouldn't take at home.
Choose Your Lodgings Carefully
Book rooms in hotels that offer accommodations on a concierge, club, or executive floor. (They provide an additional, if small, layer of security.) And make sure you use hotels that offer a full range of in-house services: valet parking (so you don't have to enter a garage or parking lot); limo service (so you needn't rely on street cabs); and on-site restaurants, meeting rooms, cocktail lounges, business centers, and health clubs.
Beware of Crime
As frightening and dangerous as terrorism is, more international business travelers fall victim to garden-variety street crimes. Travel with as little cash as possible—and don't flash your wallet or your wad. Have copies of all valuable documents (passports and visas) and credit-card information in case you are victimized. Make sure you know the location and contacts for the nearest U.S. embassy or consulate. And never hang the "Make up my room" tag on your hotel-room doorknob. It's an obvious tip-off that the room is empty—and ripe for a burglary. If you need maid service, call housekeeping.
The Fine Print...
A follow-up on two recent columns: The new JetBlue Airways terminal at New York's John F. Kennedy International Airport that we mentioned two weeks ago has been delayed until October 22. And as predicted in last week's column, the upheaval on Wall Street has had impacted premium-class travel to London. Through the end of the year, American Airlines is offering a free companion ticket for future travel when you fly to Britain and Delta Air Lines is offering double miles on selected flights to London and France.
ABOUT JOE BRANCATELLI Joe Brancatelli is a publication consultant, which means that he helps media companies start, fix and reposition newspapers, magazines and Web sites. He's also the former executive editor of Frequent Flyer and has been a consultant to or columnist for more business-travel and leisure-travel publishing operations than he can remember. He started his career as a business journalist and created JoeSentMe in the dark days after 9/11 while he was stranded in a hotel room in San Francisco. He lives on the Hudson River in the tourist town of Cold Spring.
THE FINE PRINT This column is Copyright © 2008 Condé Nast Inc. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission. JoeSentMe.com is Copyright © 2008 by Joe Brancatelli. All rights reserved.