War uncertainty revives fright
By Marilyn Adams
|Passengers re-enter Terminal 2 at London's Heathrow Airport last Friday after the terminal was evacuated because a suspect bag was found. Some say such episodes are contributing to a fear of flying.
But Kevin Tracy, an Atlanta-based software salesman who once took 150 flights a year, turned down the tour without a second thought. Tracy, who was in the air during the Sept. 11 attacks and was stranded for days away from home, dreads getting stranded again if war with Iraq or another terrorist incident erupts.
"It's a great deal, but a rotten time to travel," Tracy says. "Europe is not the right place to be when all hell breaks loose."
Fear of flying is back.
Just when passengers were growing numb to the invasive security ordeal before every flight, the Iraq threat and the government's "orange alert" have ratcheted up the fear level again. The alert has brought out swarms of police, bomb-sniffing dogs, even soldiers at some airports and train stations in the United States and abroad. Airlines already posting deep losses have seen February and March bookings sag on international flights and have slashed fares to fill seats.
The sudden security uptick 17 months after the terrorist attacks and five months after the anniversary of the attacks has travelers asking the unanswerable: How long until the next alert? How long until most people can feel at ease again on a trip?
"First it was the fear factor, then it was the security hassle factor" that kept many air passengers home, says Terry Trippler, air traveler advocate with CheapSeats.com. "Then it was the economy. Now we're back to the fear factor again."
Travelers' nerves have had little time to recover. Fear has been stoked by images of tanks at London's Heathrow Airport, soldiers at New York's Grand Central Station and anti-aircraft missiles outside the Capitol in Washington.
Already strict security at major airports is beefed up. At Los Angeles this week, motorcycle police are confronting motorists who tarry too long in the pickup and drop-off zone next to terminals. At New York's La Guardia, passengers are being ordered to remove not only coats and laptops but also their shoes to be X-rayed.
At Dallas/Fort Worth, "We are visually inspecting every vehicle coming into the airport 35,000 a day," says airport spokesman Ken Capps. Police are using mirrors to check under vehicles for explosives.
Police at many airports nationwide are searching some or all incoming vehicles, and small airports aren't exempt.
"Where they used to check crew IDs once, now they are checking a couple times to make sure it's the right person, the right number of crew," says AirTran Airways spokesman Tad Hutcheson. "People are a little bit more on edge."
Designed to ward off potential terrorists, the stepped-up security measures at airports and elsewhere are also scaring some passengers. Earlier this week, Herb Pereira waited at Miami International with his wife and baby son in a seemingly endless security line, worried less about the blizzard awaiting them in New York than invisible dangers.
"People are afraid," said Pereira, a Brooklyn lawyer who was visiting relatives. "My sister was dropping me off at the airport today, saying that since the orange alert and the (Osama) bin Laden video last week, she's afraid to fly. When I get home, I'm getting my duct tape and stocking up on food and water. We live in scary times."
Fear is keeping some travelers home. Although airlines don't release their booking numbers, Wall Street airline analysts say virtually all airlines with trans-Atlantic routes are reporting soft international-trip bookings this month and throughout March.
"Certain carriers have already begun to pre-cancel poorly performing flights," says J.P. Morgan analyst Jamie Baker.
In a new survey of 400 corporate travel managers, 82 percent said their companies would reduce or stop international travel in case of a war or terrorist attack, and 35 percent said domestic flying also would be reduced. The study by the Association of Corporate Travel Executives found that caution is taking a toll: 32 percent of the managers said their companies have reduced overseas travel because of the fear of war with Iraq.
Calming worried minds
Airlines know that some passengers fret about all kinds of things.
To help calm jitters, Delta Air Lines is offering a passenger relaxation tape called E-Z-Flight on one in-flight entertainment channel on long flights. The airline began offering the "stress-relieving channel" last year.
Developed by a mental health therapist who's married to a Delta pilot, the 40-minute relaxation program exhorts passengers to breathe deeply, and imagine a beach. Sounds of lapping ocean waves set the mood.
Behavior experts say the orange terrorism alert has been particularly scary to some travelers because they don't know how to react.
"Typically you relieve anxiety through knowledge," says trauma psychologist Robert Butterworth of Los Angeles. "In this case, people don't know what to do. I also worry about the desensitization factor, about people saying after a while, 'Big deal, another alert.' "
Those who travel a lot find they are also facing more questions from people worried about them.
"My family and friends keep asking if I can find a way to get off the road," says Washington-based consultant Anne Seymour, an advocate for crime victims' rights who travels 50 percent of the time.
Seymour, who was stranded in Detroit after the Sept. 11 attacks, says she's taking new precautions. She now pre-programs rental-car reservation numbers into her cell phone and leaves a detailed itinerary with friends and co-workers when she travels. She's also re-thinking a trip to Britain in May. "My girlfriends and I have tickets to Bruce Springsteen in London over Memorial Day," she says. "We had a long talk on the phone the other day and decided that if things are still on high alert, we're not going."
As it did during the 1991 Persian Gulf War, international travel seems to be taking the biggest hit from today's fears. Jim Corbett, a high school European history teacher in Mission Viejo, Calif., is pressing ahead with plans to take 40 graduating seniors on a European trip this summer, as he has for 10 years.
"The vast majority will go," he says.
Some not scared
Many travelers haven't been scared off by the terror talk. Some simply must fly for their jobs. They don't admit fear or let it slow them down.
A day after the tanks showed up at Heathrow, Jim Mock of Phoenix, for example, went ahead with plans to fly to London on business.
"Some of my associates expressed concern," says Mock, whose company distributes hydraulic equipment in the United States and abroad. "My attitude is that terrorism is intended to instill fear, and we can't allow that."
Butterworth, the trauma expert, says some people feel the need to stare down fear.
"You've got to have a little denial, or you'd never go anywhere," he says. "You're playing the odds."