High-flying horrors: The travel emergencies you didn’t see coming

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3 min read

JOHANNESBURG – You’re settled into your airplane seat, ready to relax and unwind during your flight, when suddenly, a call rings out through the cabin, “Is there a doctor on board?” It’s a scene we’ve all seen in movies, but in reality, in-flight medical emergencies happen more often than you might think.

In a recent incident this September, Deputy Health Minister Dr Sibongiseni Dhlomo became an unexpected hero when he assisted a fellow passenger in need during a flight from Durban to Cape Town. Similarly, former Health Minister Aaron Motsoaledi had to utilise his medical skills at 35,000 feet to aid another traveller in distress.

These real-life accounts serve as a stark reminder that travel emergencies can strike anywhere, even at cruising altitude. Recent research breaks down the primary travel curveballs that can affect business travellers – and the results are surprising.

Medical issues account for 27% of all emergencies experienced by employees on business trips, a statistic that should give any corporate traveller pause. According to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), a medical emergency occurs on approximately 1 in every 604 flights.

Bonnie Smith, GM of FCM, underscores the importance of providing employees with a safety net, ensuring they have access to assistance whenever and wherever they may need it. “While international business travel often takes the spotlight, it’s important to recognise that domestic travel is far more common for business travellers. Even quick fly-in, fly-out trips within one’s own country can bring unexpected risks,” says Smith.

“Businesses have a duty to safeguard their travelling workforce. It means having well-defined emergency protocols in place and providing access to 24/7 assistance services capable of handling health incidents and other emergencies that may arise while employees are travelling,” she emphasises.

Duty of care isn’t solely reactive; it can also be proactive, Smith notes. She recommends that businesses collaborate with a travel management company (TMC) to establish a programme addressing the unique risks of every individual in their employ.

The global assistance specialists’ research found that while medical issues were the most common travel risk, other concerns for travellers include vehicle breakdowns (22%), natural disasters (10%), and strikes/travel delays (15%).

Encountering car problems while on a business trip in South Africa, such as accidents, theft, or vandalism, can significantly disrupt your plans. To put it in perspective, there were 57 car hijackings per day in the country last year, according to South African crime statistics. When the vehicle involved is a rental car, the situation can become even more aggravating. It’s not just an inconvenience; it can also be a source of worry for your travellers.

“Accidents can result in injuries and disruptions to the itinerary, potentially jeopardising important meetings and deadlines. Theft and vandalism not only lead to financial losses but can also create an unsafe environment for your travellers. Being stranded without a functioning vehicle in an unfamiliar area can expose them to security risks,” warns Smith.

Natural disasters, such as the frequent floods in South Africa, along with strikes, pose a significant threat to domestic business travellers. How can employers protect them? “It’s essential for organisations to prioritise the safety of their domestic business travellers by implementing robust travel risk management strategies, including thorough itinerary planning, emergency preparedness, and regular communication,” concludes Smith.