Sept. 11 terrorist attacks changed travel landscape

Monday, February 11, 2002

In the days following Sept. 11, television repeatedly bombarded Americans with the horrific images of the commercial airplanes full of doomed travelers crashing into the World Trade Center towers.

So it's no wonder that the travel industry suffered.

"Of course everybody took a hit after Sept. 11," said Ann Swanson, who owns Gulliver's Travel in Jackson, Mo. "We had a dismal showing in the fourth quarter."

Her travel agency wasn't the only one.

On average, travel agents reported a decline in their business of 39 percent during the fourth quarter of 2001, compared with the same quarter in 2000.

A survey of thousands of the nation's travel agents released last week showed that fear of flying was the primary reason people don't want to travel, followed by recessionary concerns.

Americans have changed their travel habits since Sept. 11, opting for car trips, getaways closer to home and domestic trips. Rail travel has also increased in popularity.

Those changes have been at the expense of the travel industry.

"Has it hurt us? It has," said Deborah Mileur, manager of AAA Travel Agency in Cape Girardeau. "Lots of people are still saying they won't get on a plane. There still is a fear factor out there. I had a guy buy a cruise, but he's driving to Florida because he won't fly."

Still optimistic

The travel industry may be on bumpy ground, but travel agents remain optimistic they are about to enter friendlier skies. The survey, performed by Airlines Reporting Corp., also says that most travel agents believe that business will pick up during the first quarter of the year.

Travel agents predict that domestic travel will increase significantly over the next 12 months, with 60 percent expecting to see an increase in the first quarter.

Mark Hill, owner of Destinations Unlimited in Cape Girardeau, also saw a tremendous drop in business from September through December. But since Jan. 1, things have been steadily growing.

"People don't want to stay home forever, and eventually they will want to travel somewhere," Hill said. "Businesses have been very quiet these past four months, and salesmen want to get on the road. Families are wanting to take vacations. If there's not another attack, this summer will be very, very big."

Swanson said things are looking better at Gulliver's Travel, too.

"Things are booming here," she said. "We had an exceptionally good month in January. I think it's just a matter of time and an improvement in the economy before the public begins traveling again."

Swanson said people are becoming less apprehensive about security issues.

"We are not the kind of people to stay at home because some guy waves a gun clear across the world," she said. "Things are not as dismal as some would have you believe."

Better security

Factors that are helping travelers overcome their fear of flying include the screening of checked luggage and increased airport security. Travel agents said people would feel even safer if Osama bin Laden were captured and if there were armed security personnel on airplanes.

Mileur said AAA also has seen an increase in business in recent weeks and she concurs that people are feeling safer.

"People are traveling," she said. "We just had a big cruise event and we sold $88,000 on a Saturday. People are getting serious about spring break, honeymooners are getting their packages together, families are planning for summer, it just looks better than we thought it would."

Allan Muten is the director of corporate communications with Airline Reporting Corp., the group that performed the survey. ARC is the link between the airline industry and travel agencies. Travel agencies use ARC to book flights on 135 different carriers, and last year ARC processed more than $70 billion in tickets.

"We've been doing some post 9-11 analysis and we are showing a continued gradual recovery," Muten said.

The total sales for airlines dropped 43 percent in September, he said. That number improved to a 40 percent decrease in November and 39 in December.

But he said that the number of transactions may be more telling because airlines have lowered its prices since September. In October, there was a 19 percent drop and a 13 percent drop in December.

"We're still in the red, but we're going in the right direction," he said. "There is a fairly representative recovery being born out in these statistics. We're cautiously optimistic about that."

But Hill noted that United Airlines, the country's largest airline, is still losing $5 million a day.

"We're doing better, but we're not out of the woods, yet," he said.

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