Dear Malcolm Turnbull…A Helicopter View of Travel Approval


Author: Tony O’Connor

The Right Honourable Malcolm Turnbull MP recently put it to the Australian House of Representatives that surely there must be some sort of app to help Members of Parliament manage their travel expenses. There certainly is, or are. Perhaps the problem in this particular instance was that no sane person with a sense of self-preservation was going to tell Bronwyn Bishop that she couldn’t do something. Anyway Malcolm, here is a guide to how it all works. Here is the what, the where and the how of business travel gatekeeping   …   a helicopter view if you like (sorry).

What? The approval process can have four types of gate. They are risk, need, policy and cost.

Risk: Is it safe to book this trip given the cyclone / volcano / political unrest / dodgy neighbourhood / shonky airline / unsafe hotel / traveller’s health etc?

Need: Do all five of you really need to travel to Brisbane to discuss your sales plan?

Policy: Should you be…flying Business Class to Hobart? Staying at the Ritz Plaza? Taking your family with you? Driving on the wrong side of the road? Adding a few leisure days at the end?

Cost: You can’t spend more than $XXX per night in Singapore or $YYYY on the whole trip.

Where? Approval gates can be placed at different points of the pre-trip process. Let’s divide it into three: into pre-booking, in-booking and post-booking. Firstly, we’ll dispose of post-booking as desirable timing for everything outright, since it is certainly better to stop or change unacceptable travel bookings before resources are spent, money is paid and commercial commitments are made.

The term usually used in the industry is “pre-trip approval”. But this includes both pre-booking and in-booking stages. They need to be differentiated for reasons about to be discussed. Perhaps the use of “pre-trip” causes a happy confusion from some suppliers’ viewpoints since some gates that should be placed pre-booking occur during the booking.

Some approval gates are better positioned before you enter the booking process. Why? Because it may avoid unnecessary engagement of the TMC or online booking tool and therefore is fee-avoiding and resource-reducing. Also, business travel without a good business case can and should be shut down at the outset. Thirdly, it is quicker and cleaner to have as much of the approval process happening outside (before) the steps of the actual booking, rather than have delays and distractions forced between searches, quotes and confirmations. In-booking delays can create process mess due to changing availabilities.

But, two gates can’t be placed before the booking because they need information generated by the booking itself to facilitate the approval decision.

At least some large part of a typical travel policy will probably pertain to booking details, such as hotels, airfares, airlines and co-travellers. Online booking tools and internal TMC booking systems therefore need to provide thorough policy compliance filters.

The one thing that definitely needs the detail from a booking is cost, which cannot be known without confirmation of the itinerary components. If you want to apply a budget to whole trips, to the parts of trips such as fares and room rates, or even to total travel spend over time, then you need to know the actual prices.

The two gates you can place at the pre-booking beginning are need and risk. The business case for the trip should be known by the intending traveller from the moment that the intention to travel is formed. And the information needed to determine risk should also be known at the outset, including destinations, approximate times, and traveller ID and profile.

So, if you want to control travel well, you really need two approval processes, both containing two gates. Stage 1 @ pre-booking tests travel need and travel risk. Stage 2 @ in-booking applies travel policy and budgets.

In an ideal world of course it would all happen at the beginning. The approval “app” would shoot off and automatically get real costing and travel details to populate the travel request at the outset. If any system promises to do this, check carefully. How can it get those numbers and details without a full booking process? It is potentially possible for domestic travel where a fully connected online booking tool could oblige (most of the time). But how could it work with international bookings where skilled humans need to do their manual thing? They could actually do it I guess, and feed the details back in. But there would be a delay and surely an additional fee. And international travel is where most of the need is for controlling cost and risk. I know you’re getting a bit bored at this point Mr. Turnbull, but this is the sort of detail that matters when you’re spending my money.

How? The approval process, at every step, needs fast delivery of only the right information, and immediate access to crisp and thorough rules.

Risk: The readily available per-country risk ratings that we use are only slightly useful in most cases, and can in fact increase risk. Many situations are region, city or even neighbourhood specific. And many situations can be fast changing. But, once you start trying to do a better job to ascertain actual travel risk, you quickly find yourself needing information that just isn’t that easy to access. And you need it fast and accurate, at the time of the travel request. If any system promises to manage granular travel risk, scratch down a few layers to check the capabilities. Exactly what information of what quality and source is delivered by whom, how and when?

Cost: As mentioned above, to compare travel costs with budgets, per diems or thresholds you need actual booking costs. The state-of-play still today is to, at best, check the figures after a booking has been made. To do a good job pre-booking we need a loop-back from the booking process. But I don’t see how this could be practicable with manual international bookings, where it counts.

Travel Policy: The online booking tools have long applied policy filters. And for manual bookings made by the TMC booking consultant, there have long been internal booking audit processes, but…

There are usually a lot more policy rules than software can manage. Rules that are not applicable with yes, no, a number or a match with a simple pre-set condition are not digital friendly. It’s a good idea to find out which policies actually can be auto-filtered. For the rest, a human must decide. This raises the possibility of error, subjectivity and omission.

Travel Need: This definitely needs human consideration to work well. Yes, you can categorise things with drop-down menus and the like. And you can apply broad rules. But in many cases, and these are the cases where an approval gate will really add value, the decision will be at the margin.

Issues: One of the problems with travel approval processes is that they can cause delay and cost. Whenever a human is needed to make a decision, some percentage of approvals will be too-long-delayed by inattention to the request. Others won’t get attended to at all. Approval delays not only furrow travellers’ brows but they also blowout travel costs, because while you are all waiting for the tick from management, the discounted fares and rates you could have otherwise booked have become unavailable. A good approval process will have automatic back-up approvers, timers and warnings to limit dropouts and delays.

Another slight issue is who does the approving. Senior managers spend more on travel, and most are not so elevated or venerable as to be entirely free of company policy and control. And they also need to be protected from risk. Who says no to whom up on the top floor?

And so Minister, you are right. There are systems out there that can help you all to be good parliamentarians and better spenders of the public purse. But get good advice, don’t expect one simple easy solution that does everything, and don’t believe everything you’re told, especially those pre-selection promises.


Tony O’Connor is the Director of Butler Caroye Asia Pacific, the region’s leading travel management consultancy,  

He can be contacted at


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