Business

FEAR OF FLYING

The travel Industry Is anything but sunny as woes pile up for the airlines and people stay home

JOHN DEMONT November 26 2001
Business

FEAR OF FLYING

The travel Industry Is anything but sunny as woes pile up for the airlines and people stay home

JOHN DEMONT November 26 2001

FEAR OF FLYING

The travel Industry Is anything but sunny as woes pile up for the airlines and people stay home

Business

JOHN DEMONT

Everybody knows what the statistics say: you’re more likely to get creamed on the expressway driving home from the in-laws than die in an airplane crash. But try telling that to the bug-eyed souls who have been crowding Paul Griesbachs office since the terrorist attacks in the United States. “Fear of flying is all about wanting to control something that can’t be controlled,” says the director of the Behavior Therapy Institute in Toronto, who has been helping aviaphobics conquer their anxiety for 25 years. These days, he’s in a growth industry: business is up 20 per cent since Sept. 11. People who normally fly with no problem are having second and third thoughts. What’s more, the terrorist hijackings—and the latest New York City air tragedy—have transformed the uneasiness an estimated 20 per cent of Canadians feel when they step on a plane into, for some, a fullblown, crippling fear. Far from a couple of stiff shots in the airport bar, it could take several sessions of therapy, Griesbach says, before these folks are willing to sit back and enjoy the flight.

Who can blame them? Authorities may be treating last week’s crash of an American Airlines jet into a New York neighbourhood as an accident. But that won’t bolster the confidence of anyone already haunted by nightmares of terrorist hijackings and passenger planes exploding into flames. “You keep looking for good news in the papers to make you feel safer in the air but it never comes,” says Kevork Peltekian, a Flalifax liver specialist who recently cancelled a trip to Dallas for a medical conference in order to assuage his wife’s fears.

There are plenty of reasons besides terror to avoid flying. For starters, there are the long check-in lineups, especially in foreign airports, amid increased security. Some travellers are worried about being

stranded far from home if the air-traffic system shuts down, as it did after Sept 11. And what about the dwindling carrier choices? Last week, Canada 3000—the country’s second-largest carrier—went f bankrupt, leaving tens of thousands of f travellers in the lurch. The biggest remain| ing commercial line, Air Canada, is sinkI ing under so much debt that it recently be5 gan replacing hot breakfasts with muffins | on some flights to minimize costs. And | even before the terrorist strikes, the global ñ economy was staggering into recession, | causing many Canadians to shelve plans % to take to the air for business or pleasure. § “The industry is getting hit by one blow J after the other,” says Martin Taller, presif dent of Ports of Call Travel Services Ltd., an Ottawa-based travel agency, and a management consultant on travel issues. “It’s going to take years to recover.”

He’d get little argument there. Canadian air travel slid 17 per cent during September and October from the same period a year ago. Since the terrorist attacks, there have been an estimated 780,000 hotelroom cancellations, and thousands of layoffs within airlines, hotels, travel agencies and other travel-related industries. Experts predict the loss of revenues in the accommodations sector alone over the final quarter of 2001 to hit $200 million, and say even that figure may prove conservative. Tour operators to sun-spot destinations in the Caribbean, Mexico, Florida and Hawaii report winter bookings are down, despite substantial price reductions. About the only bright spot is Via Rail: angst about flying has boosted its business by 20 per cent on passenger routes between bigger cities.

No wonder the industry is fighting back so desperately. Last week, the Canadian Tourism Commission launched its $20million Travel Canada campaign, a television and newspaper ad blitz designed to tempt Canadians to vacation at home. Ho-

tel chains and airlines are already offering packages that combine travel, accommodations and entertainment. Tour company discounts have hit epidemic proportions in a desperate attempt to fill hotels, cruise lines and aircraft left empty after people put travel plans on hold. Signature Vacations, one of Canada’s largest tour operators, has even pioneered a new policy which, for a $50 charge, enables travellers to change their destination or assign their tickets to someone else if they have a change of heart. Signature now also promises a full trip credit, plus $100, if the flight is cancelled because of terrorist activity.

For all of that, it’s not always a buyer’s market out there. Canada 3000’s bankruptcy has left many businesses and travellers with no low-cost alternative now that Air Canada has a virtual monopoly in regions like Atlantic Canada. The few remaining competitors—principally Montreal-based Air Transat and Calgary-based Westjet—say they intend to expand and offer more competition on routes. And Michel Leblanc, the former chairman of Royal Aviation, which Canada 3000 took over, has offered to buy back most of Royal for $25 million. Even so, industry groups,

like the Association of Canadian Travel Agents, are calling on Ottawa to allow more foreign competition in the domestic air business—and many industry experts agree (page 34).

It will take more than a few new flights to get many people back into the air. Gerry Smith, a vice-president with Warren Shepell Consultants Corp., a Torontobased counselling firm, says the Sept. 11 attacks have left many people “gripped by an irrational fear that the acts of terrorism are going to be replicated,” which will be hard for nervous flyers to shake. “It just makes you think before you get on that plane,” explains Cynthia Shupe, a mother of four living in Halifax who cancelled a flight to Paris with her husband because they feared they might be delayed in getting back. No one is expecting corporate travellers to take up the slack either. Amid the economic downturn, companies like Calgary-based TransAlta Corp. have cut all non-essential travel and are depending much more on teleconferencing and videoconferencing.

Lots of people are still travelling, of course. Bruce Ball, the head of an Edmonton-based engineering consulting firm, says he has flown to Malaysia and taken

seven flights within Canada since Sept. 11, because he is not about to let his life be dictated by fear. “Statistically you are at greater risk on the highway,” says Ball. “I’m the kind of guy who isn’t going to let this type of thing concern me too much.” Still, Ball admits the recent tragedies have changed some of his personal plans. “My wife and I were thinking about travelling to the Middle East next year, but that may not happen now.”

And then there’s Michelle Patterson, a 21-year-old University of Toronto student, who says she’s going to fly back to her home in Moncton, N.B., for Christmas—

but only because she has no other choice. Her parents refused to let her drive after she got in an accident while heading home last year. “I am petrified of flying anyway, so this didn’t make it better,” she says of the terrorist acts. But her roommate, Carrie Rai, thinks Patterson and others afraid of flying need a reality check. “I just say get over it,” declares the 20-year-old, who has no qualms about flying home to Vancouver at Christmas. Unfortunately, many travellers-—and the industry—are going to take a long time to get over it.

John Intini

Sharon Doyle Drieger

in Toronto

With all the gloom in the travel industry, many operators have dropped rates drastically to attract much-needed business. This list shows selected bargains in cruise and package holidays, compared with the identical offering a year earlier. The 2001/2002 package rates would be even lower if airlines hadn’t tacked on fuel-price surcharges earlier this year.

BARGAIN HUNTING

AREA BOARD AT 2000/01 2001/02

Caribbean Miami $1,349 $759

Seven days (Dec.)

Caribbean Ft. Lauderdale, 1,629 839

Seven days (Jan.) Fla.

Panama Canal Ft. Lauderdale, 2,799 1,429

10 days (Jan.) Fla.

South America Valparaiso, 4,209 1,909

15 days (March) Chile

CRUISES (excluding airfare)

TO ROM 2000/01 2001/02

Las Vegas Vancouver $549 $349

Three nights (Dec.)

Turks and Caicos Toronto 2,789 2,128

Seven nights (Jan.)

Holguin, Cuba Toronto 1,629 1,238

Seven nights (Jan.)

Cancún, Mexico Montreal 1,779 1,559

Seven nights (Dec.)

AIR-HOTEL PACKAGES