Tuesday, November 13, 2001

Plane crash rattles nervous nation




By James Pilcher
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        The Tristate and the nation Monday saw the extent of the country's post-Sept. 11 edginess as the images of yet another crashed jetliner filled television screens.

        Although investigators into the crash of American Airlines Flight 587 in New York refused to speculate on whether the crash was caused by terrorism, the possibility shook many people.

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        Federal officials closed New York-area airports temporarily, and considered expanding the order to other cities — only to reopen the Gotham facilities later.

        Bridges and tunnels in and out of New York were closed for a while, and already-tight security elsewhere hit new highs, including at the Em pire State Building and the White House.

        Those alerts were eventually scaled back as federal officials said they were investigating the crash as an accident, but theanxiety remained, nationally and locally.

        “One of the things I've noticed in this particular case is people are saying things like, "Thank God, it might only be a mechanical failure,'” said Tony Grasha, University of Cincinnati psychology professor. “In other words, mechanical failure, if that is the cause, is horrible enough, but in the context of it being a terrorist attack, that seems to be the lesser of two evils. Terrorist attacks would be an insult to our attempts to make things safe again.”

        The psychological effect might carry over to future travelers, affecting an already-shaken airline industry — a major part of the local economy. Delta Air Lines operates its second-largest hub at Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky International Airport, also the headquarters for Delta's regional subsidiary Comair.

        Reeling from a huge drop in demand since the Sept. 11 attacks and bracing for a slower-than-normal holiday travel season, airlines now have to cope with this latest disaster.

        “People are getting all these messages that flying is the safest way to travel, and seeing all the statistics,” said Kevin Mitchell, chairman of the suburban Philadelphia-based Business Travel Coalition, an activist group for business travelers. “But people are not mindful about that when they see this, even if it is an accident, and they hear the attorney general putting out warnings about terrorists at large and see jet fighters in the air.”

        The White House seemed to recognize a difference in the current climate. Press Secretary Ari Fleischer said that while the president believes it is safe to fly, “prior to September 11, accidents took place ... and the public still traveled.”

        The Air Transport Associ ation, the industry's trade group, said traffic was down 35 percent in September compared with the same month last year, and preliminary figures show that traffic was down 24 percent last month compared with October 2000.

        Those results have cost the airlines billions in revenue and forced more than 200,000 job cuts worldwide.

        ATA officials would not comment on how this latest disaster would affect that slowly increasing demand, which was expected to spike next week for Thanksgiving — the industry's busiest week of the year.

        “This could not have occurred at a more critical time in the history of the aviation industry,” said Marianne McInerney, executive director of the National Business Travel Association. “As quickly as possible, the National Transportation Safety Board has to advise us what the cause of this accident is. We cannot afford to take our time.”

        Yet several passengers at the local airport said Monday's crash wasn't affecting their plans.

        “I'm going on with my business as usual,” said John Heatly, a college basketball referee from Atlanta who said he flies about five times weekly. “If I'm going to die on a plane, I'm going to die on a plane. I still feel safe.”

        Stuart Kraner of Wilder and his fiancee, Kelly Reynolds of Atlanta, said they were still planning their wedding for next month in Denver, for which about 50 people will fly to the city.

        “The timing of this accident is unfortunate, and given that, it probably will have a much worse impact on things than it would've had before,” Mr. Kraner said. “But it's still the safest way to go.”

        Enquirer reporter Cindy Kranz contributed, as did The Associated Press and Gannett News Service.

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