Travel patterns disrupted Many changing vacation plans


With war in the Persian Gulf and the threat of terrorism elsewhere, Marylanders are changing their travel habits. They're flying less, canceling Super Bowl trips, planning summer vacations to safer places such as Alaska, and even changing the direction they'll fly to get to China.

"It's the worst I've ever seen," said Gloria Bohan, president of Omega World Travel, one of the largest agencies in Maryland. "Even people going on cruises to the Caribbean have canceled."

The war has put all U.S. airports at an unprecedented "level-four" security alert. It has also prompted some airlines to cut back on flights and offer customers alternative vouchers on previously non-refundable tickets.

While midwinter is normally a slow time for international tourism, many businesses also have canceled travel plans.

"Nobody's traveling to Europe," said Suzette Palmisano, vice president in the local American Automobile Association's world travel department. AAA has more than 40 travel agents throughout Maryland.

"We're getting a lot of inquiries about penalties if they cancel. A lot of people are holding out [on travel plans] and hoping it's a short-term situation in Saudi Arabia," she said, adding that many vacationers are still taking Caribbean cruises.

Janis Silverman, office manager of Holidays-To-Go in Columbia, said, "We did have a few people going to France for business and are now holding off. A lot of people want to go to China over California instead of going East. They're also taking Alaskan cruises this summer."

Silverman said she also had four clients give up their tickets to the Super Bowl in Tampa, Fla., because they're worried that the game could be a target for terrorists.

"Everybody's got their different phobias," she said, adding that six clients canceled a cruise because they didn't want to fly to Miami to get to the ship.

Silverman said she hasn't noticed a considerable number of domestic travelers canceling trips. But she noted that travelers must deal with new Federal Aviation Administration restrictions that require those checking baggage to arrive at the airport two hours in advance and allow only passengers to the gates.

Airports are also taking more precautions in inspecting baggage and have even told passengers to remove batteries from cameras or radios, she said.

Carol Riley, spokeswoman for the Maryland Aviation Administration at Baltimore-Washington International Airport, said BWI has doubled its security force and canceled all curb-side baggage check-in. She said there have been no bomb threats at BWI since the war began.

Silverman said one of her travel agents was on a USAir flight from Baltimore to Tampa last Thursday when the plane made an unscheduled landing in Greensboro, S.C., because a passenger had checked a bag, then missed the flight.

The bag was inspected for a possible bomb but found to be harmless. USAir spokeswoman Susan Young verified the incident yesterday.

Young also said USAir is offering to reschedule normally non-refundable flights or give travelers vouchers to use for future travel plans.

"We're trying to accommodate passengers who have decided not to fly at this time because of the war for both international and domestic tickets," she said.

"Even if they have a non-refundable, penalty-type ticket, we will give them the full value of their ticket to change the date. Or they can cancel plans totally and have a voucher for a future flight," she said.

Young said the offer is for people who bought their tickets before Jan. 16, when the war broke out.

She said domestic bookings have not been affected by the war, but people traveling on international flights have been canceling. She said she had no statistics available.

USAir has no trans-Atlantic flights from BWI, but TWA's direct flights from Baltimore to London have been cut back to one a week from several a week, said TWA spokesman Jim Faulkner.

Already shaky financially, TWA announced this week that it will cut its overall service to Europe in half and furlough about 2,500 employees because fewer people are traveling due to the war.

Faulkner said TWA is also offering customers the chance to reschedule travel or take vouchers, an offer similar to USAir's.

American Airlines is offering a similar program, spokeswoman Lise Olson said.

While air travel has been curbed, train travel in the Northeast has remained normal and might even be on the rise.

Amtrak spokesman Clifford Black in Washington said he checked with station supervisors in Washington, Philadelphia, New York and Boston Friday and business was normal.

"There is no evidence that war jitters have changed travel patterns on Amtrak," he said.

But frequent fliers aren't flying as frequently.

"Maybe people feel while all this trouble is going on they don't desire to have fun," Omega's Bohan speculated. "There's still a feeling, I guess, of shock. A lot of people are trying to gather their thinking and deciding, 'Where do we really have to go?' "

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