Fear of Flying

February 14, 1991

Fear of terror attacks, precipitated by the gulf war, has shrunk trans-Atlantic travel. Flights to Europe are down 20 to 30 percent. TWA, with a 60-percent drop in bookings, defaulted on bond debts and Pan Am is cutting back trips. USAir is laying off 3,600 workers. In one televised report, ticket counters at Chicago's O'Hare Airport, the world's busiest, were under-used even for domestic flights. The conclusion? Fear of terrorism.

Hotel, resort and cruise line managers say bookings are off as much as 25 percent. Americans spent $350 billion on travel last year, so that means big losses. There is a recession on, to be sure, but travel officials say the fear of flying has had a worse effect than the economy.

Much of this nervousness is premature. The Persian Gulf war produced predictable calls for world-wide terror, and more than 100 incidents have occurred, most minor. But experts say even these incidents have been fewer and less serious than might have been expected.

In the United States, the attacks many have feared have not materialized. Overconfidence would be unjustified, but fears great enough to keep Americans from traveling in their own country are clearly exaggerated.

For one thing, most of the people interested in committing atrocities live abroad, separated from the average American by two oceans. It takes a huge population of innocents, neither involved nor aware of the activity, to hide a widespread terror conspiracy. America's 3-million-plus Arab population does not appear to fit the bill.

The largest concentrations of Arab-Americans are in Massachusetts (150,000); Michigan (60,000 in Detroit-Dearborn alone); and California (350,000). New York has also seen an influx into several metropolitan areas, and Lebanese, Syrians and Egyptians form a sizable minority in New Jersey and Pennsylvania. A large Palestinian community has formed in Northern Virginia, and Illinois has the country's most diverse Arab population.

Many of these Arabs are long-time residents; in Massachusetts, most are second or third-generation Americans. There is very little evidence to suggest they are inclined to join in terror campaigns and much to suggest that they are as loyal as other Americans.

Besides, at U.S. airports, security has been tightened to what federal authorities call the highest readiness. Law-enforcement officials are at airports, non-passengers are barred from boarding areas and dogs and inspectors prowl the corridors, looking for anything unusual. Curbside check-ins have been eliminated, cars left unattended are towed away from terminals and passengers are not allowed access to checked luggage. That makes it pretty hard for a would-be terrorist to plant a bomb. It should give would-be travelers more confidence in the safety of their flights.

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