Image: Monte Carlo fire
John Locher  /  EPA
Hotel fires (such as the fire at the Monte Carlo in Las Vegas in January, pictured), near-misses, highway pileups ... travel disasters are a part of life, but columnist Christopher Elliott says there are several ways you can plan ahead and be smart while traveling.
By Christopher Elliott Travel columnist
msnbc.com contributor
updated 3/3/2008 11:08:01 AM ET 2008-03-03T16:08:01

Whether it’s your plane grazing another aircraft on the runway, a narrow escape from a hotel fire or your car coming within inches of a multi-car pileup, there’s no shortage of near-misses in travel.

That’s truer today than perhaps at any other time in recent memory. Consider the recent wave of almost-collisions at airports. Earlier this year, an Atlantic Southeast Airlines flight bound for Greensboro, N.C., reportedly ignored orders from the control tower to stop its taxi across the runway, and nearly collided with a Mexico-bound Delta Air Lines. It was just the latest in a series of so-called runway “incursions” that became the subject of a damning government report (PDF).

And how’s this for lucky? When flames recently engulfed the Grand Hotel in Brighton, England, there were 400 survivors and not a single casualty. The cause, say investigators, was an electrical fault.

When you consider travel, it’s amazing that more tourists like us aren’t burned, crushed or fried. It’s almost as if we expect to escape with our lives and live to see another day.

But before I continue, I’d like to acknowledge something. The phrase “near-miss” is a little problematic, as one of my former editors used to insist just before removing every instance of it from my column. Because if something nearly missed, wouldn’t it technically be a hit? Well, to her and to all the other amateur grammarians out there who are troubled by my use of “near-miss” I say: you might not know what I’m talking about, but I think everyone else does.

Phew. Now that I got that out of the way, here’s the real question: How do you make sure the near-miss doesn’t become a hit?

Trust your instincts
If something doesn’t seem right, it probably isn’t. Victoria Woo, an attorney from Houston, remembers the flight with her family when her mother saved the day. “She was deathly afraid to fly,” she remembers. “We boarded the plane and she noticed something dripping from the wing. She informed the flight attendant who replied that it had just rained and so it was probably water.” That didn’t satisfy her, and she asked two flight attendants, who also dismissed her concerns. “Then she started to make a scene that today would get her handcuffed and taken into federal custody,” she says. Finally, the pilot was called. She pointed out the problem. “Turns out there was a major leak in the hydraulic fluid for the flaps in one wing,” says Woo. Moral of the story? Listen to the little voice inside your head. It might be right.

Don’t take unnecessary risks
Near-misses often turn into hits, especially in a place where trouble is likely to find you. For example, you shouldn’t be surprised when you travel to a third-world country with an atrocious air safety record, and your plane overshoots the runway, bursting into flames. Or it collides with another aircraft. That kind of thing is going to happen, and if you go there, you should expect it. Not to pick on any particular country, but Nigeria stands out. In 2006, a Nigerian plane carrying 104 people, including the man regarded as a spiritual leader of Nigeria’s Sunni Muslims, crashed after taking off from the airport in Abuja. It was the nation’s third aviation disaster that year. Travelers who board a plane in a place like that are taking their chances, and they shouldn’t depend on a near-miss.

Control what you can, but don’t sweat what you can’t
Yes, you can drive defensively. You can stay on the bottom floor of a hotel, where escaping a fire is relatively easy. You can fly on an airline with a good safety record. But there are also many things you can’t change. Paul Kincade, a forensic hypnotist from Sparks, Nev., experienced such a near-miss on a recent flight from Washington to San Diego, Calif. “As we were passing over Arizona, we were watching a movie, with all the shades closed,” he recalls. “The plane made a sudden bank to the left, so I raised my shade just in time to see another plane at our wingtip. I was too surprised to say anything, but as a flight attendant passed, I told her what I just saw.” Her reply? “That’s why I never look out the window.”

Remember, it’s never just a drill
When the fire alarm went off at the upscale Hyatt Regency Scottsdale Resort & Spa on a recent visit, I was one of only a few hotel guests who bolted for the exits. (It ended up being a false alarm.) If there’s one thing I’ve learned from a life on the road, it’s that when someone yells “fire” — even if it’s probably a drill — you don’t take your chances. You might only have one opportunity to escape, so you should take it. My favorite fire alarm story happened several years ago at the Mansion on Turtle Creek in Dallas. The alarm woke us at an ungodly hour on a Saturday morning, and guest came downstairs in their pajamas. As the staff waited for the fire department to let us back into the building, they brought us blankets and coffee. Now that’s what I call service. Who says near-misses can’t also be a little indulgent?

Don’t let it stop you from traveling
You name the near-miss, and Barb Appleby, a retired nurse from Kissimmee, Fla., has probably experienced it. An earthquake in Las Vegas from the top floor of a hotel. A lightning storm that stranded her plane at the end of a Dallas runway for six hours. And several hurricanes. Her takeaway from these close calls? Only that she’s glad she didn’t let them stop her from getting out. “Life is too short to miss anything,” she says. “You can’t just fear any incidents that might happen or will happen, and then blame someone else, and not travel where you want. I wouldn’t have missed any of these trips for any reason.” Appleby has only one recommendation: “Stay on the lower floors in a hotel.”

You can’t necessarily avoid a near-miss when you’re traveling. But you can avoid putting yourself in a situation where you’ll have a close call. And if something goes wrong, you can take precautions to make sure things don’t get any worse.

Put differently, not every close call has to be a curtain call.

Every Monday, my column takes a close look at what makes the travel business tick. Your comments are always welcome, and if you can’t get enough of my column, drop by my blog for daily insights into the world of travel.

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