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Business travel in a COVID age

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Business travel in a COVID age 1

By Rami Cassis, CEO of Parabellum Investments shares some of his experiences of business travel during the pandemic and gives his tips for a smoother travel experience

Travelling  during the pandemic comes with many added complications, none of which are insurmountable, and you also need to get past some of the more confronting experiences. I recall an Emirates flight in the summer where its cabin crew, instead of modelling their usual well-groomed uniforms were clad head-to-toe in full hazmat suits. Like many of my fellow passengers, I was taken aback as I boarded the flight.

The flight-attendants, although super-pleasant and highly-apologetic about the impact to the usual high-quality onboard service, were prevented from accompanying us to our seats, and all food served throughout the journey arrived in pre-packaged boxes.

I have averaged almost a flight a week since the end of March, but it was on that particular Emirates flight in the summer that hammered home to me just how seriously the aviation sector had been impacted by Covid-19.

The pandemic could have a long-lasting impact on the airline industry’s bottom line and on the number of passengers that take the first or business class route. A recent survey published by IdeaWorks in the US suggests between 19 per cent and 36 per cent of airlines’ business traffic base will not return to the skies. That is not the case for me and although I expect business travel to return, it may not be at the level it was once at.

It is no longer the case that you can simply pitch up to a hotel or airport. Many need a negative Covid test conducted within 48 hours of arrival in a country. Additionally, when you consider various countries have implemented differing quarantine regulations, international travel schedules have become unrecognisable compared to the first quarter of 2020. Indeed, I have been tested for Covid-19 more than 20 times now (they have all been negative  despite a number of people close to me having had the virus).

The Covid-19 crisis has certainly hit the airlines hard – according to the International Air Transport Association’s latest numbers, passenger numbers were down 70% in 2020. Lufthansa, which I used last year has been burning cash at a rate of $590m a month, while Emirates another airline I flew on regularly given my Dubai base, posted a $3.4bn loss of the first half of 2020.

I can certainly testify how eerie it has been walking through deserted airports, which would otherwise be heaving of passengers. On many occasions, there has often been more airport staff than travellers, and rules for departure and arrivals differ from country to country and time to time. I recall vividly on arrival in Frankfurt being asked quite a few questions by customs officials – usually there’s barely any eye contact let alone a conversation given I have a French passport, so EU travel is a given.

There have been pictures posted on social media by travellers enjoying the freedom of being on an empty plane, but I often found it a gloomy experience. I remember being just was one of just three passengers on a BA flight to Nice in France. On a practical level it was mildly pleasant, but it was also depressing in manifesting the impact of the pandemic, and how the associated government decisions impacted our most basic and individual freedoms. Freedoms that we all previously took for granted.

Naturally, some airlines and airports have handled the situation better than others. That said, it’s worth mentioning that at all times I have felt perfectly safe.

For instance, British Airways, irrespective of class of travel, has had the annoying habit of boarding people from the back of the plane first, eventually working their way to the front. Meanwhile, Turkish Airlines had the even more annoying practice of banning any normal-sized cabin luggage. Smart bags that would otherwise easily qualify to be kept in the cabin had to be checked in – so risk being damaged in the hold.

In my experience, I would maintain that the best and most organised airports remain Dubai, Singapore and now also Istanbul. Not necessarily in that order but all three are exceptionally well maintained with Istanbul being the newest. On the other hand, Charles de Gaulle is probably one of the worst airports because it is not well maintained, has long queues and is somewhat spread out.

And with regards to  lounges, many have little food  available irrespective of whether it’s first or business. Emirates closed its first-class lounge in Dubai and merged it with business class, which I felt impact the high levels of service it is famous for (having said that a separate first class area has just reopened in Dubai).

With the number of travellers now getting some way back to normal, I recently spoke with the chief executive of one of my portfolio companies  about the cultural business differences. When it comes to Europe, people seem keener to meet in France and in Germany. In the UK, people are generally more cautious, or wish to adhere to government guidelines.

Across all countries, people seem to be adapting to working remotely, but it is clear they all cherish how life was before. Maybe one of the side-effects of the pandemic is making us all realise that basic freedoms and human rights we all took for granted have been temporarily taken away and people react in one of two ways – they are either afraid or furious.

I’m very much in the latter camp and I’m counting down the days until we can carry on with our business lives as we did before – and that includes  paid for premium service  from our airlines.

COVID BUSINESS CLASS TRAVEL TIPS

  • get there early or book a VIP service if you don’t mind the extra cost. Previously innocuous tasks, like going through customs, can now be time consuming.
  • check the airline policy for boarding. Some, like Air France, insist on surgical masks and won’t let you board with a mask in fabric – others like Turkish Airlines have an onerous in-cabin luggage policy that prevents items normally allowed being taken on board.
  • as a precaution, take a Covid test within 72 hours of flying. Government policies change rapidly, which might introduce stricter measures for arrivals.
  • choose a mask that’s as least uncomfortable as possible
  • keep checking your flight – schedules change at the last minute, including cancellations
  • be aware of your own body temperature. Temperature checks are everywhere, and you are presumed to carry Covid if you have a slightly higher temperature than the norm.

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GameStop stock doubles again with no let-up in amateur interest

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GameStop stock doubles again with no let-up in amateur interest 2

(Reuters) – Shares of videogame retailer GameStop Corp surged another 130% on Wednesday in pre-market trading as amateur investors continued to pile into the stock that has skyrocketed nearly 700% over the past two weeks.

The share spikes in GameStop and others including BlackBerry Ltd, headphone maker Koss Corp and Nokia Oyj, have sent short-sellers scrambling to cover losing bets, while raising questions about potential regulatory clampdowns.

The top securities regulator in Massachusetts thinks trading in GameStop stock, which has jumped to $148 a share from $19.95 since Jan. 12, suggests there is something “systemically wrong” with the options trading surrounding the stock, Barron’s reported on Tuesday.

GameStop, BlackBerry and Nokia were among the most heavily traded U.S. stocks before the bell, with analysts putting the moves partly down to herds of amateur investors chasing tips from Reddit discussion threads or the private Facebook group “Robin Hood’s Stock Market Watchlist”.

“These are not normal times and while the (Reddit) r/wallstreetbets thing is fascinating to watch, I can’t help but think that this is unlikely to end well for someone,” Deutsche Bank strategist Jim Reid said.

Trading in GameStop stock was halted for volatility nine times on Monday and five times on Tuesday.

Short sellers in GameStop are down $5 billion on a mark-to-market, net-of-financing basis in 2021, which included $876 million of losses early Tuesday, according to analytics firm S3 Partners.

But some hedge funds have refused to budge from their bearish bets, with FIS’ Analytics data showing investors had piled on $2.2 billion in bearish bets on GameStop – a whopping 20% of its market capitalization.

Meanwhile in Europe, shares of Evotec and Varta jumped on chatter that Melvin Capital Management was being forced to unwind its short positions to cover losses on its other bearish bets, including GameStop.

(Reporting by Thyagaraju Adinarayan in London and Sruthi Shankar and Aaron Saldanha in Bengaluru; editing by Sujata Rao and Anil D’Silva)

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Britain may raise contactless ceiling after pandemic payment surge

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Britain may raise contactless ceiling after pandemic payment surge 3

By Huw Jones

LONDON (Reuters) – Britain will look into raising the limit on contactless payments from 45 pounds to 100 pounds ($137) to keep pace with a change in spending habits during the coronavirus crisis.

Shops have encouraged contactless payments to minimise physical interaction between people during the COVID-19 pandemic and raising the ceiling will be part of a wider examination of such changes, the Financial Conduct Authority (FCA) said.

“People are increasingly making use of contactless payments. It’s important that payments regulation keeps pace with consumer and merchant expectations,” the watchdog said in a statement.

The FCA also confirmed on Wednesday earlier proposals that banks should generally not enforce repossessions before April 1, but credit providers would be allowed to repossess goods and cars from Jan. 31 as a last resort.

Consumers struggling in the pandemic still have until March 31 to apply for a payment holiday for mortgages, personal loans, credit cards, store, cards, catalogue credit, motor finance, rent-to-own, buy now pay later, and pawnbroking, it said.

“If you apply by 31 March, you may be able to extend up to 31 July when all payment holidays will come to an end.”

The FCA said that customers, wherever possible, should use online services for their banking, to minimise contact with branch staff, some of whom have face abused for telling customers to wear a face covering.

“This is a matter of concern for the FCA and we wish to thank the frontline staff for their significant efforts to keep branches open during this challenging period,” it said.

(Reporting by Huw Jones; Editing by Louise Heavens and Alexander Smith)

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Britain may raise contactless ceiling after pandemic payment surge

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Britain may raise contactless ceiling after pandemic payment surge 4

By Huw Jones

LONDON (Reuters) – Britain will look into raising the limit on contactless payments from 45 pounds to 100 pounds ($137) to keep pace with a change in spending habits during the coronavirus crisis.

Shops have encouraged contactless payments to minimise physical interaction between people during the COVID-19 pandemic and raising the ceiling will be part of a wider examination of such changes, the Financial Conduct Authority (FCA) said.

“People are increasingly making use of contactless payments. It’s important that payments regulation keeps pace with consumer and merchant expectations,” the watchdog said in a statement.

The FCA also confirmed on Wednesday earlier proposals that banks should generally not enforce repossessions before April 1, but credit providers would be allowed to repossess goods and cars from Jan. 31 as a last resort.

Consumers struggling in the pandemic still have until March 31 to apply for a payment holiday for mortgages, personal loans, credit cards, store, cards, catalogue credit, motor finance, rent-to-own, buy now pay later, and pawnbroking, it said.

“If you apply by 31 March, you may be able to extend up to 31 July when all payment holidays will come to an end.”

The FCA said that customers, wherever possible, should use online services for their banking, to minimise contact with branch staff, some of whom have face abused for telling customers to wear a face covering.

“This is a matter of concern for the FCA and we wish to thank the frontline staff for their significant efforts to keep branches open during this challenging period,” it said.

(Reporting by Huw Jones; Editing by Louise Heavens and Alexander Smith)

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