Image: Mounted policeman
Laurent Cipriani  /  AP
Mounted policemen patrol outside Notre-Dame cathedral Monday in Paris, a day after the U.S. State Deparment warned American citizens of an increased risk of terror attacks in Europe.
By
msnbc.com contributor
updated 10/4/2010 7:32:34 PM ET 2010-10-04T23:32:34

A U.S. State Department terror alert issued Sunday warns of heightened potential for a terrorist attack in Europe, but many Americans believe such worries are overblown.

The actual threat “is unbelievably minuscule” said Bruce McIndoe, president of iJET Intelligent Risk Systems. “If you look at all the things that can happen when you travel, it would be a very long list,” he said, adding that people are 1,000 times more likely to die in an auto accident, or more likely to die by a lightning strike, than by a terrorist attack. “People have to be more pragmatic from a statistics standpoint,” he said.

The alert, he said, was issued most likely because various governments may be picking up messages about different operations, but he was somewhat skeptical. Part of the reason, “could be to elevate the discourse. For the public to take the global war on terror seriously, there needs to be some terror,” he said.

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“There are at any given time many, many threats,” McIndoe said. But “this is not a clear and public danger.”

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Steve Lott, a spokesman for the International Air Transport Association, a trade group, said the State Department issues alerts on a regular basis for a variety of issues that are usually specific, but what is unusual about this alert is “it’s extremely broad. It’s a blanketed alert for all of Europe that covers all modes of transportation and covers a very long time frame.” But he said the association and its member airlines were not overly concerned.

“It’s a helpful refresher to keep eyes open and remain vigilant,” but the airlines have been operating under an accelerated alert for close to 10 years, he said, adding, “We don’t think this should lead to any cancellations.” The airlines have not reported any dramatic changes in traffic activity, such as bookings, cancellations or refunds. “For airlines, it’s business as usual,” Lott said.

'I still plan to go'
Henry H. Harteveldt, travel analyst for Forrester Research, agreed. “I don’t expect to see a meaningful amount of people change or cancel their plans.” He said to his knowledge, no airlines have changed booking policies regarding refunds or penalties.

He expected the alert to impact “museums, tourist attractions, places like that,” and it may impact groups for whom there are legal ramifications, such as tour groups and university groups. “They may reassess whether to take a trip,” he said, but he does not expect much change in business or leisure travel.

Harteveldt said he has a trip to Europe planned in two weeks. “At this point, I still plan to go. I think we have to be careful about what is real vs. what is hype. We live in a very different age now and I think we have to accept a certain amount of risk. If the risk was really substantial, the State Department would have said so.”

Harteveldt and others advise travelers to take precautions such as being extra vigilant in “soft targets” like public venues where there is not a lot of formal security, and to allow extra time for security. He said the alert had vagueness to it, but that “what it is saying is to keep ears and eyes open.”

Michael Steiner, executive vice president of Ovation Corporate Travel, said there have been no ramifications for his corporate clients.

“There’s no question there is concern. People want to find out the details as best they can,” he said. “But we haven’t seen cancellations and we haven’t seen any changes to corporate policies.”

He said the fact that it was such a broad geographical area was a worry, but that it was a fluid situation. Companies are waiting to see what will happen and what additional information will be released in the next 24 to 48 hours. But so far, “there have been no clients who have advised their employees not to travel.”

Students abroad
The alert could potentially impact the many American students who are studying or traveling abroad.

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“No parents or students have called with concerns or even mentioned this alert thus far, “said Holly Bull, president of the Center for Interim Programs in Princeton, N.J., which helps students plan gap years.

“I’m not particularly worried. Europe is a very big place,” said Richard W. Shepro, a partner with Mayer Brown LLP, an international law firm with offices in London and Paris, who has two children currently in Europe — a son on a gap year program in Oxford, England, and a daughter teaching English in Eastern France.

Dawn Soriano, 40, a high school Spanish teacher from St. Louis, Mo., on sabbatical in France, has no intentions of returning home. “There are threats all over the world. To run away from something that is everywhere is kind of silly,” Soriano said.

She has been in France for the last three months, but relocated to Paris about a week ago, where she is studying French through an AmeriSpan Study Abroad program. And in the week that she’s been in Paris, there have been two evacuations that she was aware of. One she personally experienced when she went to a train station to meet a friend, which resulted in a 45 minute delay. And she was in Paris during a recent evacuation at the Eiffel Tower.

In her French classes, “it hasn’t been an overwhelming part of conversation. But you need to be smart about it.” She said she would most likely register with the Embassy but, “you just have to live and take appropriate precautions. I listen, I pay attention to the news, and follow general advice. You have to live your life without fear of what could happen anywhere,” she said. “That’s the whole point of terrorism. Being afraid will let the terrorists win.”

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Video: Taking terror alert in stride, travelers commit to tours

  1. Transcript of: Taking terror alert in stride, travelers commit to tours

    STEPHANIE GOSK reporting: This is Stephanie Gosk in London . The pageantry at Buckingham Palace is one of this city's biggest attractions, even the day after a new terror alert . The State Department says avoid places where incidents may occur, but they don't exactly explain what those places are. I mean, this is Buckingham Palace . There are thousands of tourists here, but there's never been a terrorist attack here. So eventually tourists are just going to have to decide on their own, is it safe enough to come here or not? Kyle and Valerie Brown from South Carolina just started their European tour .

    Mr. KYLE BROWN: We're more aware of pickpockets than terrorists, because terrorists you just -- what do they look like? What do you do?

    GOSK: The Ratherds haven't changed their plans either, but they say the alert has made them more away of their surroundings.

    Unidentified Man #1: There are threats every day everywhere we go and we have to be conscientious of what we're doing. And if we're not, we're being negligent.

    GOSK: Security experts recommend simple steps. If I were coming down here today and I was going to the London Eye and I was with my family, what sort of advice would you give us?

    Mr. RICHARD HAM (Security Analyst): It's all very, very common sense. Be aware of what's going on, be aware of bags. The security forces and the police around here have it under control.

    GOSK: Around London today there were no visible increases in security and few signs that tourists were deterred. The Hammonds from Ohio brought their teenage granddaughter Grace here for the first time and have no desire to cut the trip short.

    Unidentified Woman: If we are worried and don't go places because of warnings, then we will miss a lot of wonderful things. So we just...

    Unidentified Man #2: And they win.

    Woman: Yeah.

    GOSK: Yeah.

    Woman: And they win then.

    Man #2: The terrorists win.

    GOSK: There's some concern from officials here in London that the terrorism alert could affect the tourism industry, but there are no early signs of that yet. And US airlines say they see no reason so far to change their scheduled

    flights to Europe. Brian: Mostly watch out for those buses. Stephanie Gosk on a very busy Piccadilly Circus on a Monday night in London . And Andrea Mitchell before that starting us off. Thanks.

    WILLIAMS:

Vote: Will the European terror alert keep you from traveling?