Forecast: It's slow traveling for 2003

Airline bankruptcies, terrorist fears and an economy that's still stagnant could keep travelers close to home, like last year.


January 12, 2003|By Alfred Borcover | By Alfred Borcover,Special to the Sun

All bets are off when it comes to crystal-balling travel trends for 2003. Uncertainty clouds the ball.

It's not surprising that travel experts hedge a bit when asked to predict what's ahead. With US Airways and United Airlines already in Chapter 11 bankruptcy, one or two other carriers at risk for the same, a plodding economy, continued threats of terrorism and a potential war with Iraq, who can blame them for not rushing too far out on a weak limb?

Americans will travel in 2003, but most won't be throwing caution to the wind. In terms of trends, think shorter, close-to-home auto trips; fewer fare wars; continued cruise and hotel discounts.

"I think travel is going to be slow. If things continue to proceed as they have, and if we don't have other negative situations, and if and if and if, we'll continue to see a gradual recovery in the industry," said Suzanne Cook, senior vice president for research and technology for the Travel Industry Association of America, a Washington-based trade group. "All our numbers seem to suggest we won't be back to 2001 levels until 2004."

Cook added: "We're continuing to see a fairly strong leisure travel environment, but it has changed character somewhat. We see increasing numbers of people becoming more enamored of short trips by auto to visit friends and relatives."

People, she noted, are tending to stay closer to home, and destinations near major population centers are doing well.

For sectors of the travel industry that are in the news and those responsible for the larger share of revenue -- airlines, hotels, business and international travel -- the recovery is pretty stagnant, Cook said.

Overall, she noted, "People want to have control of what they do, do it at their own time, be with family, be a little more conservative, discover America. All those things are driving their decisions."

Because of the uncertainty that surrounds the economy and the prospect of war with Iraq, Jerry Cheske, spokesman for AAA, said it would be difficult to project travel in 2003. While noting that the economy "seems to be headed in the right direction, I wouldn't expect the economy to play as large a role as it did this year," Cheske said in 2002. "Should we go to war with Iraq, then certainly international travel will suffer and we may see a short-term downturn in domestic travel as well."

But what's really going to happen next year is a matter of conjecture.

"The real issue right now for travelers is: what airline do you book with confidence?" asked Joe Brancatelli, an airline critic who runs the business travel Web site The airlines will be there, "but what routes will they be flying?" he said, alluding to sharp cutbacks in flights and schedules in the offing. If a family is planning a summer vacation over the holidays, he said, how will it know with certainty that the carrier it chooses might not drop flights to that destination? "It's going to be a difficult year to plan," he said.

As for bargain fares, Bran-catelli advised that people are going to have to work harder to get what they perceive as the best fare. Consumers, he said, will not only have to check fares, but the restrictions attached to them.

After exploring other aspects of travel today, Brancatelli concluded: "Look, there is no good strategy for 2003. Everything is going to be tactical. That is a trend in itself -- more and more short-term decisions for holidays."

One trend that could be good no matter what is more-urban, close-to-home vacations, Brancatelli said.

"Rather than get on a plane, be annoyed and deal with the airline, hop in the car and check into a Four Seasons or a Marriott in some great shining city," he suggested. "You'll be treated better in the stores, you'll have a wonderful time. Plan a cooking school weekend, a shopping weekend, a history weekend. It could be very appealing."

While Brancatelli suggests that bargain fares will be hard to come by, Tom Parsons, who heads and tracks fares daily, said that, at least in the first two or three months of 2003, there could be some good deals. On the domestic front, he said, January and February are notoriously slow, and consumers could see some major sales. There also should be some cheap seats to Europe in January, February and March.

Parsons said consumers should keep an eye on low-cost airlines -- Southwest, America West, ATA, JetBlue, AirTran, Spirit and Frontier -- because they have expanded their routes into more destinations served by the six major carriers and may offer better fares. But he added, even the low-cost carriers will decrease the number of cheap seats they are selling now.

Remember, all the major carriers are bleeding red ink and are planning to reduce their schedules and the number of seats they have available.

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