The Terrorist Attacks Had Major Local Impacts

June 24, 2002
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GRAND RAPIDS — Whatever is happening on The Pile at Ground Zero or on the ground in Afghanistan, the waves which the Sept. 11 terrorist attack set in motion certainly washed into local corporate offices.

For most businesses, it was a shock when the Federal Aviation Administration shut down air travel over the United States minutes after the attack. Tens of thousands of business travelers — many of them West Michigan people — were stranded away from their offices.

And while Lorna C. Elve, corporate sales representative of Witte Travel and Tours, said there never seemed to be a nationwide panic, the shutdown certainly did generate an immense burst of anxious, and sometimes angry, telephone calls.

Some were just business travelers touching base with the office. Yet others were calling to say, “They’ve scrubbed the conference. Get me home,” — which, in many cases, meant renting a car and driving across a third of a continent.

But the chief phenomenon local corporate travel agents encountered, Elve said, was a deluge of calls from businesses that really had no idea where their people were or what their itineraries were.

And that’s also the point, Elve believes, at which a lot of firms here in town learned anew the value of having a designated travel agency.

“We were very busy,” she said, “and sometimes we had to put people on hold, or get back to them by e-mail. But we were able to answer their questions if we were the agency that had booked their arrangements. We were able to quickly determine the whereabouts of their travelers.

“Even if a traveler did not leave a copy of his or her flight itinerary with someone at their company, the agencies had immediate access to reservations which the travelers booked with them.  This is important information to have readily.

“And because we had the resources,” she added, “we also were able to answer some of their questions about the latest from the FAA.

“When an agency has a relationship with a corporate client,” she said, “that’s a professional, business relationship and the agency is going to do all it can to answer the client’s questions.”

But no such resource seemed to exist, she said, for those travelers who made their own reservations and bookings independently through the Internet.

In the attack’s wake, she said, she saw many news stories about the frustrations that afflicted travelers who purchased airline tickets and vacation packages over the Internet or directly from the airlines.

When they ended up stranded and needed help the most, she said, Web site companies and the airlines weren’t able to help.

With airports closed, she said, the airlines were helpless to make alternate plans, and Web site companies are in the business of operating Web sites. They’re not travel agencies. And for many such travelers even now, she said, “the frustration continues — the latest reports are of travelers who aren't notified about schedule changes and cancelled flights.

“But with travel agencies, corporate travelers — and regular travelers, for that matter — there was a person they could rely on to make alternate arrangements.”

She said that during the uproar, the Witte agency by accident got a special insight into the concerns and anxieties that were bothering corporate and regular clients: Six Witte employees happened to be stranded in Newfoundland in the wake of the terrorist attack.

“They were on their way back over the Atlantic from a program in the Netherlands,” Elve said, “and when the FAA halted airline travel, they were diverted to Newfoundland and wound up in a hotel in the city of St. John’s.”

The Witte agency missed the six travelers in part because of their absences, but also because they couldn’t be on hand to handle the extra calls. “We definitely were working extra hours,” she said, “but that’s what you have to do when your clients need you.”

As a result of the mid-September travel furor, she said her agency has sent its corporate clients a booklet entitled “Without a Travel Agent, You're on Your Own."

“I'm also reading and hearing,” she added, “ that many corporations are evaluating their in-house emergency guidelines in the likelihood of future crises.”

Elve said corporate travel numbers may not be what they were prior to Sept. 11, but American business and vacation travelers are beginning to take to the skies once again.

“Whether it means locating travelers, getting them home, rebooking flights, assisting with hotel and car rental, or comforting the travelers’ family,” she said, “now is the time to think about adding this kind of information to corporate policies.”

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