'People are leery' travel agents say

Airline traffic around New York ground to a halt again on Nov. 12 with the crash of United Airlines Flight 587.

Sue Collins, owner of Cascade Travel, 111 Oak Street, said if the cause of the wreck is determined to be another terrorist attack it will most likely deal a lethal blow to many in the financially strapped travel industry -- just as business had started to pick back up after the Sept. 11 catastrophe on the East Coast.

"I'd just been saying that everything was looking good and people were starting to relax and get back into their regular routine," said Collins.

She said every time there is an airline accident and/or airport closure it creates a setback in the travel industry because people become more hesitant to leave home or don't want to be hassled by delays in reaching their destination.

In fact, following the recent airline tragedies, the Nov. 5 edition of Travel Trade News reported that the normal rate of refunds skyrocketed from 80,000 to more than 500,000. In addition, the publication listed a 48 percent nosedive in travel agent pay, registering $232.5 million that month, which was almost half of $444.5 million from the year before.

However, both Collins and Lynn Lamson, who has owned Hood River Travel, 416 Oak St., since 1994, said their businesses have stayed pretty much on track -- except for a brief slowdown following the September devastation.

"People feel what they feel and you can just tell them the facts -- like security in airports is heavier than it ever has been and there are more people watching over them than there have been," said Collins.

After the terrorist attacks, the two travel operators said they were busy scrambling to re-schedule or flight plans, but had only a few actual cancellations.

"It slowed things down and people are a little more leery but they're still traveling," said Lamson.

In fact, Collins said many airlines, charter groups, tour companies and travel suppliers have closed their doors altogether within the past two months because Sept. 11 was the "last straw" on an industry that had already been struggling from an economic slowdown. According to Travel Trade, that revenue loss has forced 104 percent more agents to voluntarily delist themselves from the Airlines Reporting Corp, a rise from 375 in 2000 to a current high of 765.

To prevent Mid-Columbia clients from being caught in those shut downs, Collins and Lamson are watching the industry closely to keep abreast of changes.

"You have to be very careful who you book your people with, you've got to pay attention and look for signs of financial problems," said Collins.

Lamson said it could be time for the airlines to streamline their flight fee programs, which can be highly confusing since there are often more than 100 different fares to the same location and the cheaper ones often impose stringent conditions.

"Let's just get a fair fare that gives the airline a profit, makes the consumer happy and gets them from here to there," said Lamson.

Every time there is an interruption in travel schedules, both women said the phones in their respective offices start ringing with customers double-checking their flight times or just wanting a little reassurance that the situation is under control. In addition, Collins and Lamson said they frequently field inquiries from on-line ticketholders who are confused and don't know where to turn for help.

In the past several weeks, the two women said ticket sales have been strong as people began cautiously venturing forward to take advantage of good discounts on hotel rates -- as low as half-price in Florida, Hawaii and New York -- or cruise ship packages to ports such as the Caribbean that are now selling for as little as $299. Collins said many clients were even booking into upscale resorts with a cavalier "oh, let's do it" attitude.

"You can't say now that another terrorist attack won't happen, I guess you just have to decide how much you're going to let it affect you," said Collins.

However, the two travel agencies have noted that people are anticipating large discounts for holiday travel but since there were significant cancellations on these flights during the fall months the tickets prices have not dropped significantly -- although great deals are available during off-times

"I think these incidents have been sad but we have to continue on," said Lamson.

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