Monday, October 21, 2002

Short-hop travelers avoiding airline hassles

By Leslie Miller
The Associated Press

WASHINGTON - Security checks, random searches, new airline ticket fees and other hassles since the Sept. 11 attacks have kept many people off planes and on the road, particularly for short trips.

The number of people flying commercially between 200 miles and 400 miles dropped 22 percent in the year after the attacks, according to a survey by D.K. Shifflet & Associates Ltd. in Falls Church, Va.

"It's just easier to get into your car and go," said chief executive Doug Shifflet, whose agency surveys 45,000 households each month to assess their travel patterns.

AAA, formerly American Automobile Association, says the number of TripTiks - personalized trip routings for club members - it prepared rose by almost one-quarter in the first six months of this year.

The air travel industry has yet to fully recover from the attacks. From January to September of this year, the major carriers had 397.4 million passengers, 8.3 percent fewer than the 433.3 million reported during the same nine-month period a year earlier. The industry also has cut 80,000 jobs.

While some of the drop in passengers is due to fear, experts say many others are choosing ground transportation over planes to avoid airport hassles.

A 250-mile trip over interstate highways takes about 41/2 hours by car. A plane makes the trip in under an hour. But if a passenger has a 30-minute ride to and from the airports and must arrive two hours early, the time savings is minimal.

Then there are other air travel headaches: restricted parking, vehicle searches, $80 extra for a third bag, security fees, security checkpoint lines, random searches at the gate and more.

Daniel Stillman, an operations contractor for Verizon Global Solutions, recently sat in the waiting area at Washington's main train station, Union Station, and ticked off the reasons he was not flying back to his home in Edison, N.J.

The train is faster because he does not have to leave time to wait in security lines, he said, and he can book a trip at the last minute without paying more. And, he added, "We all know the terrorists could attack in a train station, but people feel a bit more safe when they're on the ground."

Since Sept. 11, Amtrak has been carrying more passengers than airlines between New York and Washington.

The news is not all bad for air travelers. Flight delays are down, largely because the number of flights has fallen, from 710,000 in June 2001 to 664,000 the following June, according to the Bureau of Transportation Statistics.

But Michael Wascom, spokesman for the Air Transport Association representing large airlines, said the industry recognizes it has a public relations problem and is looking for ways to improve travel.

Airlines want the government to approve a program that would give "smart cards" - plastic ID cards with embedded computer chips - to passengers who have submitted to background checks, allowing them to pass more easily through security checkpoints, he said.

David Tulin, a diversity consultant from Philadelphia, prefers taking Amtrak between Boston and Washington because of air hassles.

"You've lost the predictability of when you arrive at airports and how you're going to be treated," he said as he settled into his seat on a New York-bound Acela Express car, laptop and paperwork spread out on a small table in front of him.

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