The moment of panic has passed. Most of the immediate security restrictions put in place after the Christmas Day bombing attempt were temporary. There are no more bathroom embargoes or hands-on-laps policies.
But that doesn't mean travel is returning to normal. On Monday, the U.S. Transportation Security Administration made a statement about "long-term sustainable measures," including "enhanced screening." According to the TSA, this will include random pat-downs, baggage inspection and explosive detection at both security checkpoints and the gates themselves. This amounts to a huge hassle, and huge hassles are bad news for people who travel for a living, those premium passengers upon whose premium fares and frequent travel so much of the aviation industry depends. It's just getting too onerous to fly.
"I work in New York," says Andrea Pilati, a Toronto-based Web consultant and owner of Simplepath Inc. "I flew [between Christmas and New Year's]and it was a nightmare. Do I really want to spend six hours to get to New York to bill for six hours? Economically, it just doesn't make sense any more."
And even if things relax, memories of three-hour lines don't fade fast. It's a body blow to corporate confidence in the return on travel investment, just when the airlines need it least.
The global airline industry is so close to the edge that some U.S. companies are applying to get around anti-trust laws just to survive.
But after more than a year of record losses, the industry was bouncing back with the economy. The International Air Transport Association was forecasting that the worldwide aviation industry would move toward the black in 2010, cutting its losses in half.
Yet frequent fliers such as Pilati are likely to dampen the recovery. She is in the middle of several short-term contracts that require travel to the U.S., but in recent weeks she has made up her mind to do business differently.
As her current contracts expire, she says, "I probably will not be looking to do any work in the U.S. any longer, and if I do, it will probably be remotely. I would iron out all those details in advance of ever accepting work, making it clear that there would be minimal travel."
The same goes for Dave Lougheed. A provider of Internet professional services with Klick, he has been slowly ramping up his remote business capacity for the past decade or so. In the past five years, he has been able to reduce the number of trips he takes to the U.S. from 15 a year to one or two. And he thinks these latest difficulties will push his company to replace nearly all its out-of-town client meetings with telecommunications.
"It's better for the clients too, in the sense that they don't have to pay for the expense of me flying out, putting me up in a hotel. And it gives them more flexibility. If they need to cancel a meeting, that's less of a big deal than if I were on a plane," he says.
These are unwelcome words for the airlines, and IATA thinks it has the answer. In the association's view, the restrictions themselves are not so much the issue as the inconsistency and the uncertainty they breed. Business travellers are creatures of habit, and they need to get their groove back.
"We can't keep adding layers upon layers that lead to long lines and hassles," IATA spokesman Steve Lott says. "It comes down to using technology effectively, using intelligence effectively, and we need to take a risk-based approach rather than having knee-jerk reactions, spur-of-the-moment decisions that end up having a huge effect on travellers around the world."
Lott says the lobbying efforts of the Montreal- and Geneva-based IATA to limit security increases will help to protect the interests of business travellers and, as a result, the airline industry.
"If some of the hassle factor goes away, then I don't think it'll have much effect on business travel," he says. "If we continue to have long lines and restrictions on carry-on, then it could potentially change the habits of business travellers, so I think a lot depends on what happens in the next couple of weeks."
Special to The Globe and Mail
Do you have feedback or business travel questions? E-mail email@example.com.
Follow Road Work on Twitter @BertArcher.