DISASTER KEEPS TRAVEL AGENCY 'SWAMPED'

October 10, 2001 11:00 pm
Peggy WeishaarAlegra Travel, La Grande ().
Peggy WeishaarAlegra Travel, La Grande ().

By Ray Linker

Observer Staff Writer

Most people admit things will never be the same following the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks and the subsequent retaliation by the United States.

With the war likely to go on for some time and alleged continued threats from the terrorists, theres more caution on everyones part, especially travelers. Nationally, the already descending economy sank some businesses, with layoffs continuing in others.

Some stranded travelers were often left in the dark on Sept. 11 as to what was happening. The stories are still making the rounds.

No one denies, first of all, the great personal loss in human life, especially of the more than 300 firefighters trying to save the lives of other people in New York, and, secondly, that the airline industry was the most severely immediately affected, from an economic standpoint, when the airlines were grounded across the U.S. for several days.

But what about the travel agencies whose agents spend a lot of their time booking clients for air travel for business, vacation, reunion, cruise and other trips? Those agencies countrywide are part of the economic ripple effect.

Locally, the impact reached Alegre Travel on Depot Street, which is now the only travel agency left in La Grande. There used to be four agencies in town.

The first week (after Sept. 11), we had a lot of fill-in calls. People were stranded; people from out of town were stuck here and some of our clients were stranded out of town, said Alegre owner Peggy Weishaar.

There were a lot of questions: what to do with tickets they had, would flights go out and when, she said.

Lots of people who didnt book with us still called us. People who booked online got a taste of the fact they didnt have anybody to talk to with their problems, Weishaar said. Our agents answered their questions. I hope now they can see the value of booking through a travel agent.

Weishaar said the agency, which has 10 agents who all work part-time, stayed open late, fully staffed, during the unsettling days immediately after the terrorist attacks in New York, Washington, D.C., and Pennsylvania.

We were swamped. There were a lot of refunds to make and new bookings. But thats what we do. There were many cancellations and refunds to make when the airlines shut down. A lot of people who had planned to travel during the time the airlines were shut down had to be rebooked, and some people just canceled.

Even people who were not the agencys clients called, Weishaar said.

Some people think we work for the airlines, but thats not the case. We do work in partnership with them and have great access through computers to them although they have capped the amount of money we can make on a booking. Its a set amount even if the ticket is for $8,000.

During the week of Sept. 11, the agents had to do a lot of listening to callers, she said.

We were like venting blocks for people who were very frustrated. Theyd call us and wed try to guide them through the situation.

Weishaar had one story about a local man stranded in Denver when the airlines were closed.

He was on the last leg of a trip home, trying to get to Boise. He had his boarding pass in hand, ready to get on the plane. Someone came through the airport and told everyone to get out, she said.

All the people knew was that the twin towers of the World Trade Center had collapsed. There were different rumors, but he didnt know for certain what had happened. He tried to get a room and had to spend two or three days there. All the rental cars were gone. Finally, he got a call that a rental agency had a car and he raced down and got it. There were 165 names on the waiting list at the car rental place, she said.

Sue Kreutz tells the story of a mother and her week-old child trying to fly out of Boise.

They were in the airplane, on the runway ready to take off when the pilot got the word they were grounded. Someone entered the plane and cleared it out. The womans husband was about to leave the airport, but she just caught up with him.

She saw stuff on the TVs in the terminal but really didnt know what had happened. She said things were pretty chaotic. We had to completely re-issue her tickets so she could fly the next week, but it took hours on the phone, Kreutz said.

In general, she said, airlines canceled so many flights our clients had so many disconnects. We had to take so much time to reaccommodate them.

Agent Cindy Schaures said she had heard an interesting story from another agent about some hunters who went after caribou in an isolated spot in Alaska.

When it was time for them to come out, their bush pilot flew in and got most of their gear and flew out in his small plane. He told the hunters hed be back in about a half-hour. But he didnt come back for three days because all flights had been grounded. The hunters survived on the caribou they had killed on their hunt, Schaures said.

Weishaar said that despite the huge amount of time being spent by agents for both clients and just people who call, were strong. We are valued by our clients who value their own time. They know we offer a service they cant get anywhere else.

Will things get back to any degree of normalcy?

Some people are hesitant and apprehensive about flying. We werent as busy in September as weve been in the same month in the past. Normally, wed be doing a lot of booking for the Christmas holidays. But were not getting as many calls as we have in the past.

Business travel has scaled back, too. Part of that is because of the increased prices for people who have to purchase airline tickets with short notice, Weishaar said.

But were still very busy.

Schaures, just back from Hawaii, said that because of the increased security at all airports, shed advise people to get to the airport three hours before their scheduled fight departure.

It took us 2 1/2 hours to get out of Maui, and we just did make our flight. In fact, they had to hold the plane for us, Schaures said.