Holiday travel plans prevail despite tragedy

Many people still plan to fly, but doubts about airline safety keep some seats empty.

With Thanksgiving, the nation's peak travel season, just a week away, many Americans appear ready to fly home for turkey and stuffing - regardless of the fiery crash of American Airlines Flight 587 in Queens on Monday.

Travel agents report that, so far, reservations for the holidays are holding steady. "We haven't seen any great number of cancellations to date, although it's a big topic of conversation in our offices," says Joe Galloway, immediate past president of the American Society of Travel Agents.

People like Marissa DiMeo and her Army fiancé say they're not going to let anything get in the way of their Caribbean cruise. Next week they're flying from New York to Miami to get on board.

Sue Cogswell is just as determined. A retiree from Fort Lauderdale, she still plans to fly to Reno, Nev., to visit her children. "We never thought about canceling it," she says.

While air travel remains down across the board, the willingness of many Americans to fly this holiday season will be crucial to the recovery of the airlines, which are continuing to lose money as a result of the Sept. 11 attacks and the economic downturn.

But in the short-term, the industry is focused on determining the cause of the crash of Flight 587. In a sign of the extraordinary nature of the times, there appears to be a sense relief that, so far, the evidence point to mechanical failure - and not terrorism.

But experts still say the sooner a clear determination is made, the more quickly the airlines can overcome any lingering fear that may keep some people on the ground.

The investigation's focus

Currently, the National Transportation Safety Board is looking at the plane's 13-year-old engines - one of which was recently overhauled, the other of which was to undergo the same process soon.

After the failure of two CF6 engines in April and June of last year, General Electric, which makes that model, instituted a new inspection regime. Then, just last month, the Federal Aviation Administration put the industry on notice that its own study found an "unsafe condition" in that type of engine that would require even tougher mandatory inspections.

"We almost always learn something new from every accident, however tragic that is," says Aaron Gellman, an aviation expert at Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill. "But what we learn will be used to make airline flying even safer than it is today."

Indeed, Professor Gellman thinks it's crucial to remind the public that flying remains the safest mode of transportation, "even after everything that happened. No doubt about that."

It's a message that appears to be resonating with the public, however slowly. After the World Trade Center attack, a Gallup poll found that almost half of Americans would be less likely to fly. In a more recent poll - done before Monday's crash - 38 percent of people said they were less

likely to travel by air for Thanksgiving and Christmas. But experts say the only way to really gauge the impact of this recent disaster is to wait and see.

Many of the people who landed at Kennedy Airport in the immediate aftermath of Monday's crash, like Robin Young, say they still plan on flying. "We'd definitely think twice about it, but we wouldn't be deterred," says Ms. Young, an accountant from Manhattan, as she rocked her 5-month-old son in the baggage-claim area. "It's still the safest way to travel."

But Kevin and Beth Rennard of Massapequa, Long Island, say they won't be flying again anytime soon. Mr. Rennard's office was in 4 World Trade Center, and he watched the first plane hit from his office. "It took a lot to get on the airplane [to go to Florida], and then this happened," says Mrs. Rennard. "If we go to Florida again next year, we'll drive."

Low-cost carriers

The Youngs and Rennards are leisure travelers, the kind that have helped low-cost carriers like Southwest take off in recent years. In fact, experts expect these carriers to continue to grow and become dominant - while some of the majors, like American and United, will find themselves hobbled by debt.

"We're going to have a big shake-up with winners and losers," says Darryl Jenkins director of George Washington University's Aviation Institute.

One, if not two, of the nation's carriers are expected to go under in the next year as the industry undergoes a dramatic restructuring.

One of the biggest problems facing the majors is their price structure, which is dependent on business travelers. They traditionally make up only 9 percent of passengers, but have accounted for more than 40 percent of revenues.

Since Sept. 11, business travel has remained in a serious downturn.

"This is the worst possible situation for the big boys," says Professor Jenkins. "But the industry will come back when the economy comes back."

In the meantime, travelers like Joyce Laswell, a teacher in Ft. Lauderdale, Fla. will help keep the airlines aloft. While she confesses she don't like to fly, she does like to visit her family in Dallas. She's going there for Christmas, even though her grandson recently told her not to come because he was scared for her to fly.

She says: "I told him, 'I'll fly on a safe plane.' "

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