As we look forward to another year, it is amazing how quickly things have moved on. At the beginning of 2022 when everyone hoped coronavirus was a thing of the past, Omicron suddenly popped up, just to remind us it wasn’t.
Although we didn’t have any medical cases, there was a slew of cancellation claims – many for expensive winter sports trips. As Omicron spread slowly through Europe, we received claims where customers had to self-isolate as they tested positive in resort, so air ticket changes and extra hotel costs had to be paid for. It still happens very occasionally but is rare.
So, here at the start of 2023, I’m very relieved that almost every country in the world has removed the requirement for PCR or lateral flow tests as a condition of entry. When travelling in Covid times, I was nervous that I may test positive and miss a holiday, so it’s not as if the customer wanted to cancel – they simply had to.
A focus on Nepal
However, there are other burning issues which have stayed under the radar, due to coverage being focused on the pandemic. One of these concerns is the trekking season in Nepal, starting up again imminently. Last year, we had an avalanche of fake helicopter claims. Over the years, we have been used to rogue companies in Nepal taking people too high and too quickly to get their ‘brown envelope’ from the commercial helicopter companies’ rescue, but it has started to become the norm rather than the exception. We have had to really amplify the message to customers and warn them what is happening out there, as well as telling all the helicopter companies that we won’t roll over and pay for any so-called ‘rescues’.
The message has taken its time to get through, and although the most recent Nepal season was just about acceptable, early 2022 cannot be repeated this year. The two-pronged message of informing our customers not to pay for helicopters themselves, as well as telling the helicopter companies we’re not going to pay for fraudulent rescues, has resulted in us just managing to contain the situation.
I come from a travel industry background, so it does disappoint me that the Nepalese government don’t even try to improve the widespread fraud there, as the time may come when more insurers just say: ‘Nah, forget it, it’s just not worth it any more.’ Trekking insurance for Nepal would then become unavailable or prohibitively expensive, and the country’s tourism industry will collapse, as travellers will simply stop going there if they can’t get insured.
Sense of optimism
Australia and New Zealand can look forward to a first year where their borders will (hopefully) be fully open since the pandemic – last year they opened in time for their winter season. I, along with all travellers, will be hoping that 2023 doesn't see the huge lack of staff at airports and the resulting cancellations of 2022. At the beginning of last April, I was on the 7am flight to our office in Prague. In the taxi on the way to the airport, I received a text message saying my flight had been cancelled, but I managed to get on the lunchtime departure instead, so not all was lost!
Insurers must up their game and settle straightforward claims in a reasonably quick time
Last year, British Airways (BA) bore the brunt of the bad press, but they’d cancelled timetabled flights already, so the numbers of cancellations on the day (like mine) were pretty limited. But the problem was that we were inundated with queries about covering these airline cancellations, which of course we wouldn’t. It's up to the airline to give the money back or arrange an alternate flight. And the huge compensation they must pay out if the delay is more than three hours!
The situation was fairly short-lived, but it returned when News UK had their travel awards in Bari, Italy. Forty of the top tour operators, tourist offices and travel journalists attended, on the set of the James Bond movie No Time to Die. British Airways won best short-haul airline. However, the BA flight bringing them all back broke down, with an 18-hour delay. Some of the invitees even had to sleep on the airport floor. When it did eventually take off – no water, ice or catering. My guess is it won’t take out the award for best airline this year.
Robust response to crises
So, the concerns for 2023 are strikes and the impending cost of living crisis, especially as taxes have been raised and bills have gone up.
But will the British public travel less, forgoing travel insurance in 2023? Well, I was in the travel industry in Gulf War I and II, and it was all very good. Oddly, people upgraded their arrangements to ensure things went smoothly. Likewise in the banking crisis of 2008, travel was pretty much unaffected. What did happen, though, is people became choosier and demanded better value for money. This brought around the demise of some travel companies, but also the growth of forward-thinking businesses. Just look up the size and profitability of Jet2 in 2008, and Jet2 today as an example.
For travel insurance, the same happened, and will happen again. Although this time around, I don’t think travellers will abandon insurance; we have Covid to thank for that. However, they will demand better service and value from their insurer, or they will move.
Insurers must up their game and settle straightforward claims in a reasonably quick time, rather than months as has been reported. Also essential are more innovative ways of communicating their message to customers to not only educate, but assist them should things go wrong.