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 The Brancatelli File

joe TRAVEL IN THE TIME OF WAR

BY JOE BRANCATELLI

March 20, 2003 -- Now that the bombs are falling and the missiles are flying in Iraq, here's an important tip: Anyone who says they know what is going to happen next in business travel is talking through their metaphoric hat.

That said, however, it is possible to make some intelligent guesses about the state of business travel in a world where attention is justifiably diverted by the opening days of action in Iraq. Using some past precedents, intelligent analysis and a careful extrapolation of known facts, we can draw a picture of where we stand now.

What follows is my best stab at knowing the unknowable about business travel in the days and weeks to come. It is hardly exhaustive and subject to almost immediate change as the news from the Middle East becomes clearer. But here's my best assessment as of Thursday afternoon on March 20, which, by some cruel, cosmic joke, is also the first day of spring.

BASIC TRAVEL DECISIONS
If you're self-employed or involved with a small business, you may make your own decisions on when, if or where to fly. If you're employed by a large corporation, however, the decision may rest with your firm's travel department. Your company may impose a temporary ban on some or all kinds of travel during the early days of the war. If you will be permitted to travel, you may be told to book away from U.S. flag carriers on international routes. (Some companies may ask you to avoid U.K. flag carriers, too.) You may also be told to avoid U.S. hotel chains overseas.

With or without a dictum from your travel department, very few travelers are booking flights to the Middle East right now. The U.S. State Department issued a new Worldwide Travel Caution on Wednesday (March 19) as well as specific warnings for travel to bordering regions such as East Africa, Turkey and Pakistan.

AIRLINE SCHEDULES
Throw away your printed schedules: Airlines around the world began slashing routes and frequencies as early as Monday (March 17) and the pace of cancellations will quicken with each passing day we are at war. These cuts and cancellations come without advance notice--and often without public announcement--and are usually effective immediately. Reconfirm every flight to every destination before departing for the airport. On new bookings for future travel, make back-up plans because flights on the schedules now may not be operating when you are scheduled to fly.

What flights are most vulnerable? Service to the Middle East and East Africa, obviously. Flights to Europe and Latin America, where carriers are wildly overscheduled, are also immediate targets. Asia-Pacific service has been considered the least likely for swift cancellations, but some airlines have already dropped or trimmed service this week, so it is clear that no region is immune. Domestically, the Big Six carriers, all of whom are already losing bucketsful of money, will reduce frequencies first, then begin lopping cities off their route maps. The longer the war lasts, the faster the pace of the cuts. Low-fare airlines such as Southwest, AirTran and JetBlue have been more careful with their existing schedules, but an extended conflict will impact them, too.

Most airlines have already implemented "peace of mind" policies that allow travelers to change flight dates and destinations with little or no penalty. But the rules vary, so check with your airline and understand the conditions completely before changing. Your "rights" are even murkier if your airline cancels your flight and unilaterally rebooks you. However, you are under no legal or financial obligation to accept what the airlines assign you if the carrier has cancelled the flight you booked. If you cannot arrange a mutually acceptable replacement, contact your credit-card company and contest the charge. By law, credit-card firms cannot bill you for services not delivered and a cancelled flight constitutes an undelivered service.

AIRPORT SECURITY
Major changes at domestic airports have already occurred; they went into effect shortly after the Homeland Security Agency upgraded the nation's terror-alert status to "code orange" on Monday evening.

Expect random searches of vehicles entering airport grounds. Most vehicles will be stopped and at least visually inspected. Also notable: close-in parking, usually within 300 feet of passenger terminals, is restricted or prohibited. Once you are inside the terminals, expect more fastidious procedures at security-screening checkpoints and more aggressive regimens to examine checked bags. Keep your boarding pass and identification available at all times because you are likely to be asked to produce them several times and at random locations.

If the war drags on or if there are incidents of terrorism, expect security to be increased more dramatically. Curbside check-in may be suspended and the TSA may even revive random, at-the-gate, secondary security searches. No-parking perimeters around passenger terminals may be widened. Some airport access roads may be closed. And a few airports might completely ban vehicles from approaching airport terminals. That would force passenger pick-up and drop-off functions to hastily arranged remote locations at the distant edges of airport grounds.

Airport amenities will also diminish as the weeks drag on. If passenger traffic drops precipitously, airlines will close some airport clubs and reduce the hours of operations at other lounges. Some food and retailing facilities will close or reduce operations. In extreme circumstances, some airports will close terminals and concentrate flights at fewer gates and concourses.

HOTEL CHANGES
Hotels, especially full-service and deluxe properties, have seen dramatic drops in occupancy in recent weeks and that shortfall will only accelerate in the coming days. That will lead to sharp declines in services and amenities of all kinds.

At many properties, restaurants and bars will close or reduce their opening hours. Some hotels will shutter their executive- or concierge-floor lounges, so reconfirm your accommodations directly with your hotel before your arrival. Like airline schedules, these cuts will be made with little or no notice and without public announcement. Other changes to watch for: reduced hours of operation for largely unprofitable hotel services such as room service, laundry and valet, fitness centers, concierge services and evening turn-down. Hotels may also reduce their staff count, meaning longer waits for bell services, housekeeping and even valet parking.

Also, look for an increased security presence in the lobbies and public areas of major hotels in big, gateway cities. Hotels have been slow to rachet up security in the past, but now that they have been identified as so-called "soft targets" for terrorism, general managers may be less worried about the "unpleasant" or "ungracious" look of armed security guards in their plush lobby areas.

CITYSIDE CONSIDERATIONS
If you're traveling internationally, and especially if you are traveling in regions where public opinion is hostile to U.S. military action in Iraq, lower your profile. Don't advertise your origin: Don't use your business card as a luggage tag and don't wear logo clothing that could identify you as an American. Limit your use of public transportation. Avoid large public gatherings and demonstrations. Before your departure, check the Consular Information Sheet for the countries you are visiting. Know the location and contact information for U.S. embassies and consulates.

Domestically, don't assume the status quo. Since bridges and tunnels are considered terrorism targets, expect increased security and slower going than usual. Don't be surprised if you see beefed-up security at convention centers, sports arenas and other large, public spaces. Plan accordingly for these delays. If you're not familiar with local mass-transit options, it might not be a bad idea to avoid them for now. And do some homework: Hit the Web and check the local newspapers, radio and television stations for a quick briefing on conditions. A Google search will yield the appropriate media outlets.

This column originally appeared at JoeSentMe.com

Copyright 1993-2004 by Joe Brancatelli. All rights reserved.