Lower fares won't lure fliers

Tuesday, September 25, 2001

CHICAGO -- With the traveling public still fearful after this month's airborne terrorist attacks, the airline industry is facing a daunting task in luring customers back.

There is a sense in the industry -- where most flights are only one-third to half full -- that incentives used in the past to fill aircraft won't work until public confidence in airline security is restored, analysts say.

"The airlines could give tickets away and people won't get aboard because of the fear," said Michael Wascom of the Air Transport Association. "Restoring passenger confidence in the security of the system has to happen first."

In the past, the airlines could rely on the tried-and-true airfare sales, promoted in the media, to fill seats. But many customers could find that offensive, analysts say. The only airline ads published since the attacks have been ones of sympathy for victims.

"They are in a quandary," said Joe Brancatelli, a columnist for Biztravel.com who tracks air travel. Airfare sales "would look incredibly tacky while there are bodies still buried in the smoldering wreckage of the World Trade Center."

The industry had fallen into unprofitability months before hijacked airplanes crashed into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, and in Pennsylvania on Sept. 11. But the attacks made the industry's survival more difficult, prompting huge layoffs and a multibillion-dollar government bailout.

Bailout is hindrance

The bailout also is a hindrance to lower fares, airline consultant Terry Trippler said.

The bailout includes $5 billion in compensation for losses stemming from a two-day aviation shutdown after the attacks and the decline in business since service was restored. The remainder is for loan guarantees pegged to higher insurance premiums and security costs.

"It would be tacky to go to Washington and beg for money and then announce a clearance sale at home," Trippler said.

Wascom said the industry instead will reassure the public that the nation's air system is secure, and security measures will become even more stringent. He said the industry will mount a campaign similar to that when Y2K fears were high in the public's mind.

"It was a time when every industry was faced with reassuring the public that necessary steps were taken to ensure safety," he said. "The industry's message will be the steps taken to ensure safety -- that the only reason commercial aviation resumed flying was because of the fact the system was safe and secure. And that additional security measures will be taken."

The industry will be hammering that message home in coming weeks with television and newspaper ads, he said.

But it will be a difficult task, Brancatelli said.

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