Coping With Crisis, Again

Another security threat forces the industry to adjust to new regulations

By: Norman Sklarewitz

Not since the Sept. 11 terrorist attack has the travel industry and the traveling public been hit so hard and so fast as it was when British intelligence and law-enforcement agencies uncovered what was apparently a plot to put suicide bombers aboard as many as 10 airliners bound for the U.S. The disclosure triggered unprecedented security measures.

Certainly, stringent restrictions on carry-on materials imposed during the first hours when the threat levels were raised were, in a matter of days, scaled back some. Just the same, it’s clear that passenger screening will remain tight with all previous protocols in effect, and additional rules imposed on passengers. All shoes now will have to be removed and X-rayed, for example. Until now, of course, some types of footwear were allowed through without being checked. A second screening at the gate is also likely to remain in effect.

There’s no denying that the traveling industry airlines, cruise ships, tour operators and travel agents, among others had their hands full in the first hours of the heightened threat levels. But the industry in most cases responded swiftly to adjust. To accommodate passengers delayed in reaching their embarkation ports, Holland America Line, for example, adjusted by a few hours the sailing times of seven of its liners from Copenhagen, Lisbon, Vancouver, Montreal and Seward.

At Seattle-Tacoma International Airport, some 120 employees of the Port of Seattle volunteered to help out at the airport, according to Bob Parker, airport spokesman.

“They helped manage lines, handed out bottled water and even had coloring books to give to kids stuck in line,” said Parker.

The first day, he admitted, was “tough” because everyone travelers, TSA and the airport itself was caught with “very little notice.” But conditions quickly returned to near normal the second day.

It was much the same at John Wayne Airport, said Jenny Wedge, airport spokesperson.

“Passengers were very understanding and cooperative. They care about their safety as much as we do,” Wedge said.

And within a day or two, it was business as usual, she said.

If things were getting back to at least relative normalcy at U.S. airports, that was not the case at London’s Heathrow Airport as of press time. As recent as August 18, U.K. airport authorities described security restrictions in place there as “strict,” a number of flights were still being cancelled and screening lines were long. Any easing of restrictions that came when the security warning level was lowered from Critical, the U.K.’s highest, to Severe does not mean “a return to normal,” the British Airport Authority warned.

Back in the U.S., the consensus in the industry seems to be that the American public understands and accepts the inconveniences that come with increased security measures. “It’s the ‘New Reality’ in which we live,” said one industry official echoing a sentiment heard often by experts since the incident.

Lessons Learned

Now that the worst of the disruptions initially caused by the heightened security level are over, agents might benefit by reviewing how they coped and what they may do to prepare for similar events in the future.

Cheryl Hudak, Vice President of ASTA and owner of Travel Dimensions, in Boardman, Ohio, said it’s critically important to “keep your clients informed.” Her agency has the e-mail addresses for its clients in a database and relayed advisories from the TSA and ASTA regarding the new rules about prohibited carry on items to them.

“If people are aware of special conditions and can be prepared, they will handle the situation a lot better,” she said.

Her agency also uses an after-hours call service through which her customers can change reservations or take care of other problems when her agency is closed.

“It’s a worthwhile investment,” Hudak said.

Susan Tanzman, owner of Martin’s Travel & Tours in West Los Angeles, agreed that the traveling public these days is “more enlightened, they don’t get scared.” Still, an agency should be proactive, she suggested. For example, she disseminated material issued by the TSA and the airlines regarding prohibited items to clients all with her agency’s message: “We’ll prepare you.”

Tour Op Put to the Test

Proof that the industry these days has grown accustomed to the need to be resourceful is provided by Brendan Tours in Chatsworth, Calif.

According to owner Jimmy Murphy, it was put to the test in the early hours after the alleged plot to blow up airliners over the Atlantic was revealed. The incident involved a group of 44 that was on a pre-cruise tour of Ireland and was scheduled to fly back to London to board the Grand Princess in Southampton. The tour group members were already on the aircraft when they were told that their flight from Cork, Ireland, back to London was among the many cancelled.

Their Brendan escorts quickly got the group back to the hotel from which they had just checked out and ordered a buffet lunch prepared while they worked on details to get them to the ship. The decision was made to move the group on to Falmouth, England, the first port of call for the Grand Princess. That involved taking a ferry from Cork across St. George’s Channel to the English town of Fishguard. From there it was an eight-hour motorcoach ride to Falmouth. The group, described by Murphy, as a “lot of very happy people,” was at the dock ready to board when their cruise liner arrived.

But that wasn’t the end of the fast footwork by Brendan Tours staffers. While all this was going on, the Ireland office was advised by a Brendan tour escort that he had eight Americans also booked on the Grand Princess. Only they were in Shannon on Ireland’s west coast, far too distant from a ferry port to get to Falmouth in time. So to accommodate them, Brendan arranged for the party to be transported by motorcoach to Dublin which was the second stop for the Grand Princess. It was a two-day wait, but the passengers did it in style. Brendan put them up at the Four Seasons hotel.

“The important thing was that at no time did any of our clients feel abandoned,” said Murphy. “We were there to hold their hands the whole time.”