Navigating through today's uncertain skies

Security: Travel, especially by air, faces serious problems and questions since Sept. 11.

Strategies

September 30, 2001|By Gary A. Warner | Gary A. Warner,ORANGE COUNTY REGISTER

Where to go? When to go? Should I go at all? How can I be safe? Car or boat or train instead of planes? Should I book a tour or cruise for next year or wait?

A giant wave of questions is sweeping across the travel world in the wake of the Sept. 11 tragedies.

But eventually, after we have mourned and buried the dead, the desire to get back to business, and back to normal, will be overwhelming.

Traveling again is also being seen by some as a way for the average American to fight back against terrorism.

"If all the air passengers cower in fear, the terrorists have won and you might as well lock yourself in at home and never leave," said Guido Borges, a Tustin, Calif., travel agent.

An "instant poll" of 800 Americans by the travel marketing firm Yesawich, Pepperdine and Brown in the days immediately after the attacks found that two out of three respondents said they wouldn't let the incidents deter them from traveling.

Impact on economy

How Americans respond to the call to take to the air or to the road will have an enormous effect on the economy.

Travel spending accounts for about $600 billion in the U.S. economy each year. The economies of entire regions hang in the balance. In California, tourism is a $75 billion-a-year business employing more than 1 million people, according to state officials.

Travel has rebounded from tough times before. The bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland, in 1988 and the mysterious crash of TWA Flight 800 in 1996 after takeoff from New York City had Americans swearing off taking planes.

The terrorist bombings of the Vienna and Rome airports in 1985 chilled overseas travel. The recessions of 1987 and the early 1990s hurt airlines.

Each time the level of travel did not just return to normal -- it rose.

But even optimists who believe travel will again recover admit this is something different. The apocalyptic images that filled televisions, newspapers and magazines have Americans more apprehensive than ever before.

Analysts are already forecasting that the shakeout of the aviation industry will mean fewer airlines, fewer flights, longer lines at airports and an industrywide depression that could last more than a year and require federal bailouts of up to $25 billion.

Travelers are understandably apprehensive. Still, it can be a time of opportunity -- travelers can expect to be enticed with deep discounts, particularly for international air fares and luxury hotel rooms.

Deeply discounted fares to London, Paris, Rome and other European capitals are expected by many travel agents -- with fares falling perhaps under $350 round-trip from Los Angeles.

When to plan the next vacation may be up to the White House and the Pentagon. If Osama bin Laden is captured or killed and his international network of terrorists uprooted, confidence will quickly return.

But anything short of a complete, rapid victory -- one that U.S. officials say is highly unlikely -- will prolong the uncertainty. Many Americans don't want to be away from home when any counterattacks come and possible terrorist reprisals are launched.

Several travel analysts said that a key time will be the coming Thanksgiving and Christmas holiday season, less than two months away. Millions of people travel for family visits. Some heightened sense of security or action against terrorism is a must by then. If the uncertainty drags on into the spring, when travelers around the world make their summer travel plans, the effect on economies across the globe could be disastrous.

In the short term, that trepidation will shape the vacations Americans take. Airlines, international destinations and cities with high-profile landmarks are likely to see a drop in visits. Americans are likely to opt for more car trips to destinations close by.

Concerns over flying also give Amtrak a rare chance to try to win customers back from the airlines. The national passenger railway reported its long-distance trains were full in the days after the attacks and daily revenues had doubled.

The test for Amtrak will be if the line can improve its on-time performance and customer service enough to retain customers beyond the current crisis.

The derailment of the California Zephyr from Chicago to San Francisco in an accident earlier this month that was unrelated to terrorism was also a reminder that no mode of travel is completely without risk.

Staying close to home

Travel authorities have already noted what they call "The Mayberry Effect," the small but growing popularity of vacations to small towns and villages that hark back to simpler days before urban congestion and suburban sprawl.

One anomaly that travel agents have noticed is that while long-haul overseas trips are seeing waves of cancellations, trips to Hawaii and Mexico have held steady for now. The lure of "sun and fun" getaways remains strong for now.

A recent airline innovation may also be in trouble. Airlines have tried to get travelers to use electronic tickets -- essentially a confirmed reservation number that is then converted to a boarding pass when the passenger gets to the airport.

However, since the attacks, passengers have reported that having a paper ticket clearly showing they are a passenger made it easier to navigate the security that enveloped people at the airport even before they got to the ticket counter.

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