Despite attacks, passengers will likely keep flying, experts say

Few accept airlines' offer to alter or cancel flights to and from London

Air Travel

Bombings In London

July 08, 2005|By Meredith Cohn | Meredith Cohn,SUN STAFF

Fares overseas are reasonable, the dollar is rising with the temperature, and to the downtrodden airlines' great relief, the seats to Europe this summer are full.

Even as global fears were renewed yesterday with the bombing of commuter buses and trains in London and an elevated U.S. threat level, travel experts and the airlines say they expect passengers will keep flying.

"It's a moment," said Robert Mann, president of the Port Washington, N.Y., airline consulting firm R.W. Mann & Co., about the bombing. "That's the key issue. If it becomes more of a terror campaign, things might be different."

People have been traveling overseas despite the weak dollar, which has gained ground on the euro recently. And Europeans have been flocking to the United States.

These bigger-ticket overseas travelers have become a bright spot for airlines, which have more than regained passengers since the terrorist attacks in Washington and New York on Sept. 11, 2001. But, they still face skyrocketing fuel costs, labor troubles and low domestic fares that don't pay the bills.

Several airlines that fly internationally have adopted temporary policies allowing jittery passengers to alter or postpone flights, but the carriers said few were taking advantage yesterday. Some passengers arriving at Baltimore-Washington International Airport from London yesterday were shaken, but that didn't stop them from flying.

British Airways, which flies daily to and from BWI and London Heathrow Airport, said flights remain full.

The airline's flexible policy will be in effect until July 15, and although there have been a lot of calls from passengers, there have been few schedule changes, said John W. Lampl, an airline spokesman.

"We're hoping this will not have a significant impact. But like any of these situations, there is an instant reaction, and if passengers want to delay their flight for any reason, we are permitting them to do so without nay penalty or fee," he said.

"But we are operating normally," he said. "This is the peak of the peak season, and there is pent up demand since 9/11. We're above pre-9/11 levels of passengers."

US Airways also reported that operations were normal, and flights to and from London remain full. Still, passengers can change their flights without a penalty through tomorrow.

"We've been receiving a lot of calls asking if we're operating, and we've advised them that we are," said Amy Kudwa, an airline spokeswoman.

US Airways, which is operating in bankruptcy, has added several international flights this summer. The airline said it is meeting demand, but it is also capitalizing on the revenue-rich flights that major carriers mostly have to themselves as discount airlines focus on domestic or short-haul international flights. Many other airlines have also shifted some domestic routes overseas.

Kudwa said the flights helped the airline log an all-time high load factor - the number of passengers in all available seats - on June 30 of 92.4 percent.

The Air Transport Association, the U.S. airline trade group, expects 200 million people to travel domestically or internationally this summer, up about 4 percent from last summer.

Domestic routes began recovering soon after 2001 as the discount carriers moved in and began offering cheap flights. But the economic downturn, SARS and wars in Iraq and Afghanistan kept travelers away from international destinations until last summer, said Jack Evans, an association spokesman. This summer, the number of those overseas passengers is expected to jump 10 percent.

The International Air Transport Association, a trade group representing international carriers, reports that in the first five months of the year, demand was high across the globe, but Latin American, North America and the Middle East logged the biggest gains.

Evans said it's too early to tell if the London bombings will derail the expected gains, but he also has not heard of many canceled flights.

Experts say passengers may be leery of changing their long-planned vacations or necessary business trips because the heavy demand means they may not get other seats.

Jay Ellenby, chief executive of Safe Harbors Travel Group in Baltimore, said he has seen an uptick in business and leisure travelers this summer. And after contacting his clients yesterday to see if any wanted schedule changes, he believes that the London bombing won't have a significant impact on many people's plans.

"I have yet to see any cancellations for people traveling to Europe," he said. "It's a good sign."

Ellenby expected the demand to continue, especially as the dollar continues to gain on the euro. A fare to London from BWI, Philadelphia International or Washington Dulles International can be had for under $700 round-trip, booking in advance through airline Web sites. And, there are even better deals to be found, he said.

Those with tickets yesterday backed up the experts.

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