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Tuesday, 13 November, 2001, 01:04 GMT
Crash blow to holiday air travel
Empty terminal
Airlines were already seeing far fewer passengers
Stephen Sackur

It may have been nothing more than a terrible, gut-wrenching coincidence.

Just two months after the World Trade Centre was brought crashing to the ground by two American airliners, New Yorkers again witnessed death and devastation delivered by plane.

This time officials believe the evidence points to catastrophic mechanical failure. An accident.

And it's tempting to see that as some sort of relief in the upside-down world created by the atrocities of 11 September.

But there's precious little relief in the facts: More than 250 people are dead; new questions have to be answered about the safety of one of the airline industry's most popular workhorse planes, and the public has been reminded once more of all the uncertainties that go with flying.

The new 'normal'

In the hours after the crash Washington's national airport was an eerie place.

Passengers still queued for their boarding cards and dutifully waited in line for the now exhaustive security checks.

But few people seemed animated by the prospect of a coming vacation. Few businessmen seemed to be clinching deals on the phone.

Instead anxious eyes were trained on the terminal TV monitors as news filtered through of the New York crash.
National Guard troops at airport
President Bush has called for 2,000 more National Guard troops to provide security

Nel Anton, going home to California put it this way: "I just think people are really rattled. George Bush wants us to go back to normal. But I don't think we really can. There is no normal right now."

Well, maybe there's a new normal, which involves thousands of National Guard troops being despatched to the nations airports, to at least give the appearance of a nation well protected.

It involves plans to improve all aspects of air travel security, from baggage handling, to passenger profiling.

The president has admonished the nation to go about their business. "You should still go to Disneyland," he told Americans a few days ago.

Holiday cheer?

But such encouragement isn't restoring health to the nation's ailing airline industry.

Some 100,000 workers have been laid off in the sector since 11 September.

Major airlines like United are talking of going under within a year unless the travelling public gets back on board.

And the knock-on effect in this continental economy - which depends on the assumption that air travel is easy - could be devastating.

Thanksgiving is coming up, one of the biggest travelling weeks in the year.

The airlines had been hoping that the holiday might see the beginnings of a revival in business, but the signs aren't good.

Bookings are down by as much as a quarter. Tickets are on sale at give-away prices. And now the anxiety generated by the loss of flight 587 must be factored in.

Maybe it wasn't terrorism, maybe it has no connection to al-Qaeda, but it has reminded Americans that they live in uncertain times, and that just two weeks ago the FBI warned that another terrorist attack might be imminent.

At times like these there's an inclination to hunker down, play safe and stay at home. And that is bad news for the airline industry.

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