Recent security-related flight delays and cancellations haven't prompted business travelers to scrap upcoming trips and airline industry officials say the economic impact so far has been minimal. But if the disruptions become more frequent, they said the situation could change.
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"We haven't really seen a change in the patterns of bookings or in numbers of cancellations," said Pam Arway, executive vice president for corporate travel at American Express Co., the world's largest travel agency. "Possibly, that's because the flights (came) back to normal pretty quickly."
"The facts are that bookings are increasing a little bit," Arway continued, "so we're keeping our fingers crossed that the stuff that happened hasn't had much impact."
Since New Year's Eve, more than a dozen flights to the United States on British Airways, Air France and Aeromexico have been canceled or delayed because of security fears that arose after U.S. authorities raised their terrorism alert to the second-highest level.
The Department of Homeland Security on Dec. 29 began requiring foreign carriers to place armed law enforcement officers on flights to the United States "where necessary."
Some industry observers speculated last week that business travel bookings could drop as much as 15 percent because of the increased "hassle factor," a term ascribed to the unpredictable and sometimes lengthy airport-security delays ever since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
But airline officials say such dire predictions have not come true and corporate fliers said a combination of factors made it unlikely they would.
For starters, corporate travel managers have trimmed their budgets so much over the past two years that nearly all trips taken these days are deemed "essential." Moreover, business travelers now factor in the possibility of being inconvenienced each time they travel so they are generally less annoyed when delays occur.
"It's all about expectations," said Benny Hagood, a consultant for an Irving, Texas, software provider who spends about 80 percent of his work week on the road. "You have to have the mindset that delays are going to happen."
Roger Dauer, a public affairs manager for Shell Oil Co. who flew British Airways on a trip to London earlier this week, said the recent disruptions to the carrier's service did not make him reconsider his itinerary. Nor did he think about canceling the trip altogether. His only doubt was whether getting to London's Gatwick Airport two hours before the return flight would be enough of a cushion.
"There were no delays at all," Dauer reported - except for the long line at customs for passengers arriving in Houston.
Air France officials concede that it will take time to smooth out the operational bumps caused by implementing tighter security and cooperating more closely with U.S. officials. "But we are feeling confident that we should be getting back to a normal pattern soon," said Marie-Joseph Male, vice president and general manager for Air France's U.S. operations. Male said Air France is aware of only nine passengers canceling trips due to security fears in the past month and that conversations with corporate clients suggest only a "small minority" might change their travel policies.
If the "hassle factor" does get worse and the number of security-related flight cancellations increases, corporate fliers might be less confident to make last-minute travel plans, particularly overseas, said Kevin Mitchell, chairman of the Business Travel Coalition.
"Over the long-term, this could be very analogous to the aviation gridlock we experienced in this country in 1999 and 2000," when runways were crowded and delays frequent, Mitchell said. "You couldn't do a trip without risk. So instead of flying the day of your meeting, you'd go in the night before. That's how I see this becoming normalized. We'll work around it."
The nation's terror alert level was lowered one step on Friday as the Bush administration said the urgent threat had passed. However, airports and airlines will keep their high alert status, a Homeland Security official said.
Matthew Montana, an architect for a firm in Essex, Conn. and an infrequent traveler, criticized those who complain about air travel delays, given the heightened terror threat level, and described the recent tightening of airport security as "great."
"I'm sorry," Montana said the other day while waiting to catch a flight from Washington to Connecticut, "but nobody's time is that valuable."
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