When software development company Informatica shut down travel at the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic, Sajida Begum, who manages the company’s travel program out of India, would soon face some of the biggest travel-planning challenges of her career.
The first challenge came in those first months of the pandemic. Like much of the rest of the world, Begum watched as Informatica — which has its largest employee base in India, though its headquarters country, the United States, remains its largest travel program — instructed its employees to work from home, followed by prime minister Narendra Modi’s shutdown of the country.
At that point, the goal was to get the employees working abroad back home.
“Since most of the employees were stranded in the US, we had to put the list in to the Indian consulate in the United States, then they were selected and booked on the repatriation flights,” Begum said. “We were successful in moving everybody except two specific employees, who were on long-term projects in the US”
With offices closed, those two employees had been working out of hotels for two months as they awaited their turn for the limited number of repatriation flights, which were prioritizing such categories as senior citizens and pregnant women. When they were finally approved to return, however, standard approaches to travel booking no longer applied, she said.
At that time, Air India was the only carrier authorized to repatriate travelers back to India, and per the repatriation rules, those flights could be booked only by travelers through the Air India website — not by the company or through its travel management company, American Express Global Business Travel, nor could they use the central payment account usually used for air travel.
“It was between the consulate and the traveler; no one else was involved,” Begum said. “We guided them the best way how to book, because we had the alerts for every country, and we had support from [Amex GBT]. “
It was more than a simple return trip through which Begum had to guide the employees. Repatriation flights via Air India were available only on certain days and through a handful of gateways, so travel also had to be arranged to ensure they could travel through San Francisco with time to make their connection, including a hotel stay — which also were in short supply at that time.
The infection rate at that time was at a high point, so morally supporting the travelers was very important. ”
– Informatica’s Sajida Begum
In addition, the arrangement had to include a government-authorized quarantine hotel upon arrival in India, which at the time was seven days for asymptomatic arrivals. Helping the employees through that, arriving as India was seeing some of its darkest days of the pandemic, gave a new meaning to the term “traveler counselor.”
“They were just sitting in a room, and there were also a lot of Covid patients inside the hotel, so they were very nervous,” Begum said. “The infection rate at that time was at a high point, so morally supporting the travelers was very important.”
More than Repatriations
Once those travelers were safely home, it was not the last time Begum would have to take extraordinary measures to move her travelers around the world during the pandemic. Another employee had to relocate to Canada for a long-term, company-critical assignment. At that time, there was no direct travel between India and Canada whatsoever. The only option was to connect either through Mexico or Doha, Qatar, where they could be tested for Covid-19, then approved for travel into Canada. They opted for the Mexico option, which also included a connection in Paris for a total journey of about 26 hours, Begum said.
Over time, Begum had to get other travelers to Canada, and other options opened, including Abu Dhabi, which at least had direct connections to Bengaluru and made the journey a bit easier. Still, Begum had to prepare travelers for the possibility of testing positive for Covid-19 in their transition airport, which then would have required them to quarantine there.
“What we recommended is that they either wait until the situation was better, so they can take a direct flight, or to opt into travel knowing they could have 14 days of quarantine on arrival, where they would have to take care of those expenses on their own, “she said.
A similar situation arose for an employee who was working in Singapore but had returned to India on personal travel as the pandemic started. When Singapore shut its borders, the employee was unable to return to Singapore and was rejected six times in requests for direct return from India. Begum helped the employee find another option: getting approval for travel from Turkey. Singapore approved that application, which required the traveler to quarantine in Istanbul for two weeks before returning to Singapore, where he had another 14 days of quarantine.
Begum also had to help employees navigate some domestic travel needs as part of relocations during the pandemic. As the US relaxed restrictions in August 2021, for example, a few employees needed to relocate to the US but still could not enter even though they had valid visas stamped. That required them to apply for a National Interest Exception, which required travel to the consulate in Chennai.
Prepped for Whatever Comes Next
“We definitely relied on Amex GBT to provide us up-to-date information, but I also would double-check and monitor the government websites in each and every case,” Begum said. “We also have a partner with [International SOS] that helps employees make decisions. “
With global Covid-19 restrictions lifting in many parts of the world, Begum’s tasks have turned a bit less Herculean, though she is still handling some additional travel needs due to the disease. Informatica has a large US-based conference upcoming in May, and with visa appointments backed up with long waits in some locations, she is helping employees find and travel to consulates elsewhere in India so they can be processed for travel in time. In one case, a traveler needed to go to two different consulates: one for biometrics and one for an interview.
Even though it is not a requirement, Informatica has maintained a policy recommending travelers test before domestic flights in India that connect to international flights, she said. That reduces the chances of them testing positive in transit and having to quarantine.
Begum also worked with Amex GBT’s meetings and events team to set up vaccination events in Informatica’s Hyderabad office for employees and their family members. “The country was under lockdown, and we arranged all the set-up at the last minute, due to last-minute approval from the hospitals with whom we had engaged for the vaccinations.”
The heavy lifting has left Begum feeling more confident in managing future crises, such as when Abu Dhabi was hit with a missile strike earlier this year.
“We looked at the situation and advised Amex [GBT] no to book any tickets to the UAE or transiting through the UAE, and it was paused for some time, “she said.” We’re looking at the safety and security of our employees. “