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Originally published Wednesday, June 19, 2013 at 6:00 AM

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From volcanoes to riots, travel security firms watch the world

For businesses that send people around the globe, keeping tabs on natural disasters as well as political upheaval is vital, so these guys never sleep.

The New York Times

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No place is without international travelers, so the routine at global travel security and emergency response companies that keep an eye on the world is never actually routine.

A few days ago, Alex Puig, a regional security director for the travel emergency company International SOS, was in his office in suburban Philadelphia watching reports on a volcano erupting in western Alaska. At the same time, he was monitoring events in Turkey, where street violence sharply escalated over the weekend.

Those were just two hot spots on a long list. Troubles, mayhem, disease, natural disasters and other disruptions hit like lightning strikes all over the world and are monitored around the clock by companies like International SOS, which claims to have 70 percent of the Fortune Global 500 companies as clients, and competitors in the travel alert and response business like iJet.

That pesky volcano, named Pavlof, in the western Aleutian archipelago, began erupting again in mid-May. On some days it was belching ash 20,000 feet into the skies, forcing cancellation of some regional flights. The question was whether the eruptions at the volcano, one of Alaska’s most active, might worsen and spew a higher and wider ash cloud that could potentially disrupt hundreds of flights a day on the ever-more-important travel and cargo routes between North America and Asia.

“The concern now is primarily over the effect that volcanic ash has had, and potentially again could have, on air traffic,” said Puig, a former travel and cargo security executive with Target and a former agent in the clandestine services of the CIA. “At the end of the day, let’s assume that more ash clouds get spewed into the atmosphere, and now airlines are having to reroute and greatly reduce — or completely cancel — flights.”

That, as we saw in Europe three years ago, can mean big trouble.

In its update Sunday, the Alaska Volcano Observatory, a joint federal, state and university program, reported that seismic tremors on Pavlof had weakened.

But it added that given the volatile nature of Pavlof, “eruptive activity could increase again with little warning.”

While there was no immediate cause for alarm about air travel in the region, there was plenty of precedent for paying attention — for travelers and for those in corporate offices who send business travelers around the world. Those corporate officials are charged with so-called duty-of-care responsibilities, not only to respond properly to emergencies, but also to anticipate them.

Lessons were learned from the calamitous effects on travel caused by the ash cloud that covered much of Western Europe when a volcano in Iceland erupted in spring 2010. At one time, Puig said, such an event might not have seemed as disruptive or dangerous as, say, an earthquake, and might have been taken for granted.

“People said, ‘OK, we’ll just fly over it or around it,’” he said. “But in Europe we found out that this wasn’t feasible, and a lot of people got stranded.”

Over an eight-day period in April 2010, 104,000 commercial flights in Europe, half of the total scheduled, were canceled. Five million travelers all over the world were left stranded, as the effects of those cancellations rippled through the global commercial aviation networks. It was a slow-moving travel disruption with huge logistical effects — hotel rooms were hard to get, ground transportation was uncertain, work communications were going haywire as travelers found themselves stuck all over the world. But most business travelers at least had support systems in place back home.

“If you’re a business traveler and you get stranded in say, Hong Kong, and you can’t leave because of flight disruptions, it probably means you get to stay an extra week in Hong Kong on the company dime,” while trying to manage work and personal schedules thrown into turmoil, he said. “But as we saw in Europe, a lot of leisure travelers were caught” and were scrambling for options.

“If you’re on your own, you can easily end up sleeping at the airport,” he said.

As the volcano in Alaska quieted down, at least temporarily, the violence in Turkey was becoming worse. Many travel managers with employees on the road in Istanbul and elsewhere had assumed that the situation would be controllable, given the long stability of Turkey. But then concerns were raised at home offices by reports that the riot police and government supporters were singling out foreigners in Istanbul and that police even fired tear gas inside a hotel favored by international business travelers.

“Right now, we’re telling people you can travel to Turkey — not a problem — but make sure your travel arrangements are in order, check that the airports are still working, make sure of your ground transportation, check to see that the hotel where you’re staying isn’t affected,” Puig said.

“It’s a very tricky thing,” he said of the emergency response in the “be informed” stage, as it was regarding Turkey.

“You don’t want to underreact,” Puig said. “We actually prefer to land on the overreact side, if we feel it’s moving fast in a certain direction and we need to put our teams on the ground and start to organize logistics.”

Violence on the ground is a lot more dangerous than a volcano that disrupts international air travel, of course. But in these kinds of situations, it pays to be prepared. You just never know. Things could settle down in Turkey, as far as the potential effects on travelers. That volcano in Alaska could go back to sleep.

“It’s too early to tell,” Puig said.

But it’s a good idea to pay close attention.

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