by Brendan M. Lynch | November 01, 2006

On Aug. 10, 2006, authorities in the United Kingdom arrested 21 people thought to be plotting an imminent attack on aircraft using homemade bombs disguised as, among other things, drink bottles. As a result, all liquids -- and any substances soft enough to be gelatinous -- were promptly banned from aircraft. Though the ban was somewhat relaxed in September, the arrests brought forth new fears and frustration.

For the meetings industry, it is time to ask: Could travel increasingly lose its luster for attendees because of terrorism fears and confusing security headaches? Will conventions and trade shows suffer reduced attendance? What can be done to mitigate flyers’ fear and make travel less onerous?

Riskier skies?

Despite all the enhancements to aviation security at airports after 9/11 -- more air marshals, stricter passenger screening against watch lists, scanning of checked luggage, barred cockpit doors -- threats clearly remain to commercial flights, prime targets for terrorists. Some people feel renewed anxiety about taking to the skies since Aug. 10. And security woes have
already pinched a major meetings industry partner: the airlines themselves.

On Sept. 1, for example, Continental Airlines reported that “August 2006 year-over-year consolidated and mainline passenger revenue per available seat mile were negatively impacted by approximately 1.5 points due to the elevated security concerns during the month.”

However, airlines bounced back during the month that followed, seeing higher passenger traffic throughout September despite the changes in rules concerning carry-on luggage. Reuters reported on Oct. 4 that Continental, United and Southwest all saw increases in year-over-year passenger numbers, even though planes were less crowded due to an increase in capacity over 2005.

The seesawing passenger traffic numbers are reflective of flyers’ attitudes about traveling via jetliner: According to an AP-AOL poll of 1,000 Americans conducted in late September, 79 percent of respondents said the TSA’s changing rules regarding gels and liquids in carry-on luggage made no difference in their feelings about the overall safety of air travel. While 64 percent said the rules about gels and liquids were easy to understand, 32 percent found them confusing.

Moreover, the poll found that while 41 percent of Americans believe security is consistent from airport to airport, more (44 percent) disagree. Lastly, the study had definite good news for the travel industry and meetings trade: 43 percent of Americans affirm that today air travel is “very safe,” a higher number than in earlier polls taken in the years since the Sept. 11 attacks.