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Pesky problems plague summer travelers

Just when Mississippi business travelers were getting conditioned to terrorist threats, long security lines, flight delays, lost luggage, soaring airfares and other summertime traveling frustrations, along comes a TB-infected traveler — a fellow Southerner — who threatened to bring the airline industry to its knees.

During Memorial Day week, the traditional kick-off for summer travel, U.S. health officials issued a rare federal order of isolation to detain a Georgia man diagnosed with a highly drug-resistant form of tuberculosis after he was a passenger on Air France flight A385 from Atlanta to Paris, potentially infecting fellow travelers. When asked why he was determined to travel against his doctors’ advice, the man said “compelling reasons” drove him to defy risks; he later apologized.

“This is the first time something like this has happened,” said Barbara Hawkins, operations manager for The Travel Professionals in Ridgeland, a full-service travel agency catering to corporate and business travel. “I’ve been in the travel business since 1966. Hopefully, it will never happen again.”

Chuck Bonelli, director of marketing for the Southeast Tourism Society, said unless there are multiple cases, the TB scare “will be a classic ‘tempest in the teapot’ occasion.”

“Think of the bird flu. It’s real and dangerous, but it hasn’t stopped anyone from going where they want to get the job done,” he said. “Granted, TB is serious — and for my generation and older, TB carries an ominous history — but still, at this time, it’s not a significant problem.”

Travel industry insiders are also buzzing about Northwest Airlines (NYSE: NWA) exiting bankruptcy protection after 20 months, locking its unions into lower pay through 2011. Flight attendants may not be serving coffee with a happy smile — pay for senior members of the Minneapolis-based airline was slashed from $44,190 to $35,400 per year. All total, pay cuts represent $1.4 million in annual savings to the carrier.

“Northwest is coming out, but the path was more recently paved by Delta Airlines, who parlayed exceptional leadership, employee loyalty and community pride to a significant turnaround that has set the stage for a new era in airlines,” said Bonelli of the Atlanta-based airline (NYSE: DAL) that exited bankruptcy protection in April. “From a domestic point of view, the emergence of these companies is a very positive sign, and the public will adjust to the new reality.”

Hawkins was very glad to see both Northwest and Delta emerge from bankruptcy.

“Both airlines have reduced their domestic flights and have increased their international flights,” she pointed out. “This is one of the reasons so many flights are full and why discount seats sell out so early.”

Travel professionals are also debating the advent of the Airbus A380, the world’s newest and largest airliner billed as the “cruise ship of the sky,” which has been in the making for seven years. Fourteen carriers (none U.S.-based), including Singapore Airlines, have ordered 156 super jumbos from Airbus. Among the supersized jet’s “wow” factors: beauty parlors, waterfalls, gyms, shopping arcades, and bars to belly up to, plus roomier seats and better air quality. Compare that to the 747, which debuted in 1970 with a movie theater, Tiger Lounge and skin-covered sofas.

“The Airbus? Think 747 thirty years ago … it is definitely a people mover, but is it sexy? The 747 was initially,” recalled Bonelli, “but these days, it’s just another plane with too little leg room and too many people. But it gets you there safe and sound, and is solid transportation. The Airbus A380 will be a big splash, but in my opinion, only because it is new, not because it transforms air travel.”

Susan Walker, president of Ridgeland-based The Travel Company, one of the state’s largest travel agencies, said business travelers need to be prepared for an unwelcome summer travel side effect: the increased likelihood of passengers being bumped from their flights because of airline overbooking. “Travelers need to check in early, or at least on time, which at most airports is one-and-a-half hours prior to scheduled departure,” she emphasized, advising that “if denied boarding, they should ask to see the airline’s written policy of denied boarding compensation to see what their rights are.”

None of the obstacles of airline travel will deter business folks from heading to the airport this summer, not even higher airfares, Bonelli pointed out.

“Obviously no one wants to spend more money, but we’re all realists and know the cost of doing business,” he said, “and business is good — so travel is important. Regardless of all else, relationships are still key to closing the deal and that is always done best face to face. Networking may be the most understated of all tools in the kit these days, but successful business folks know it works.”

Contact MBJ contributing writer Lynne W. Jeter at Lynne.Jeter@gmail.com.


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