March 28 —
The first full week of fighting in Iraq caused sharp declines in
springtime travel bookings. Now industry officials are crossing
their fingers for a quick end to the war in Iraq so that the
slowdown in trip planning does not carry over into what is
traditionally the busiest time of year for leisure travel.
"The big question is whether we're going to be able to salvage
the summer season," said Kimberly Wilson-Wetty of Valerie Wilson
Travel in New York, summing up the fears of travel agents
The immediate outlook for the travel industry does not look
bright, with airline passenger traffic down 10 percent from a year
ago and US Airways on Thursday joining other major carriers in
reducing domestic and international flight schedules in response to
the war. The airline industry, which has cut thousands of jobs in a
matter of days, has made the threat of more bankruptcies the crux of
an intense lobbying campaign on Capitol Hill, where a
multibillion-dollar financial aid package is under
Domestic air travel bookings for the next 60 to 90 days have
fallen by 20 percent, and international bookings for the same period
are down by 40 percent, according to the Air Transport Association,
a Washington-based trade group.
That's bad news for the car rental industry, which relies on
airport reservations for roughly 60 percent of its business,
according to Neil Abrams, president of Abrams Consulting Group in
Car rental outlets outside of airports could pick up some
incremental business, though, if Americans decide to travel closer
to home, as they did last summer, out of of concern for their
personal safety and financial well-being. Rental car companies might
also pick up some corporate clients traveling shorter distances say
Los Angeles to San Francisco or New York to Boston who prefer a
drive to a flight in these uncertain times, he said.
"It's really a very unpredictable situation right now," Abrams
Bryan Leibman, president of Houston-based Frosch International
Travel, said he's experiencing greater financial turmoil now than
immediately after the terrorist attacks of 2001. Since then,
airlines have eliminated travel agents commissions, corporations
have curbed travel budgets and leisure travelers have gravitated to
online agencies in search of discounts.
Despite more lenient cancellation policies since the war began,
Leibman said would-be travelers are reluctant to put down deposits
for air and cruise travel. "There seems to be a hesitation, a
waiting period, in terms of booking for summer," he said.
The timing of any resolution to the war is of great concern to
Wilson-Wetty and her peers because airline, cruise and hotel
bookings by leisure travelers are typically made at least one month
in advance. And if the first Gulf War is any indicator of how
consumers will behave this time around, demand for leisure travel
will not come back as fast as it does for corporate travel.
As a result, the further the military conflict extends into
spring, the less likely it is that families, retired couples and
college students will be making ambitious travel plans for Memorial
Day the official start of the summer travel season and beyond.
"If the war ends sometime fairly soon, then we have time for
people to make vacation plans," said Bob Whitley, president of the
U.S. Tour Operators Association, which represents more than 140
Whitley said member companies are reporting that bookings are 30
percent below year ago levels; group tours have proven to be
particularly sensitive, he said.
For the time being, customers are inquiring about refund policies
in the event they want to cancel a trip and they're also doing
research about where the best bargains can be found, a trend Whitley
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