When business travel is open slather

If you have a long memory, you might recall that, when frequent flyer programs began to take off in the 1990s, some companies (and governments) even banned their people from personally accumulating frequent flyer points that they could later use to take the family on holidays.

It was seen as a shameless rort, which is exactly the way the airline programs were designed, pitting company employees' personal interests against those of their employers. The airlines correctly calculated that, in a battle between self-interest and Doing The Right Thing, self-interest wins every time.

Which is fine in the good times, but what about the global financial crisis we've just passed through when companies have been slimming down and, in company travel policy, either cutting back or trying to get more bang for their buck?

Three years ago, there were predictions that airline business class would soon be a thing of the past along with first class. The best the privileged could hope for was a seat in premium economy, which is exactly what business class used to look like.

Unsurprisingly, Australian companies can barely remember the GFC because it had little effect locally and the Australian economy, while spluttering recently, looks more like Asia's than America's or Europe's.

Nevertheless, I was shocked by the results of a recent survey of 350 travel managers by Egencia, the corporate travel arm of Expedia.com.

It found nearly half of company travellers were ignoring policy, with 42 per cent shunning preferred carriers and the lowest-available-fare policy.

The tendency for business travellers to hold off booking airfares until the last minute was the most common breach of corporate travel policy and 68 per cent said the failure to book air travel far enough in advance was the biggest strain on travel policies.

Egencia's Australian manager, Ken Pfaffmann, told travelweekly.com.au that, even though it meant defying company policy, travellers strayed from the preferred carrier because they were more interested in racking up their personal frequent flyer points.

“There can be a tendency for certain travellers to have personal ties to an airline,” Pfaffmann said.

He said companies should sit down with their preferred airline partners to discuss options such as status-matching to help sway a traveller’s allegiance. They could also offer incentives such as a prize draw for employees who book within the recommended period.

Pfaffmann said travel policies need to be enforced from the top, but they need to be enforced in line with the company’s culture. A company with a relaxed corporate atmosphere did not suit strict enforcement of a travel policy, he said.

In fact, an Egencia survey of 689 North American buyers last year found 67 per cent said there were few or no consequences for policy violations. That survey found North American corporations could save nearly two-thirds of their travel spend ($US29.8 billion out of a 2009 total travel spend of $48.7 billion) using stricter policies requiring purchase of non-refundable tickets and the "lowest logical fare" for air travel.

Pfaffmann urged companies to better communicate their policies. “Often a policy gets sent out via email and that’s the end of the policy. You are not going to be successful if that’s the approach you have,” he said.

Just how much freedom does your company give you when you travel for work? Is your company policy strictly enforced? Is there a culture of thrift at your company or is it open slather? Are the greatest priviledges reserved for the few or is there "democracy"? Are there areas where money is needlessly wasted?