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Spring break trips not affected by war, so far

Annual college spring break trips appear largely unaffected by the war in Iraq, according to industry representatives.

Although everyone interviewed said it was still too early to tell for certain, airline, bus, train and boat travel companies feel business has remained somewhat steady this year compared to last year.

On March 20, American Airlines announced an initial 6 percent reduction in international flights and plans to cut 7 percent of domestic flights by Tuesday.

“Our numbers have held up reasonably well, but we are definitely seeing some softness in international booking,” said Carlo Berntolini, an American Airlines spokesman.

Based in Fort Worth, Texas, American Airlines was among the airline companies to waive all ticket-changing fees in the event of war, terrorist attack or a red alert by the Homeland Security Department.

“I think it’s too early to tell because spring break only started a couple weeks ago and it’s not over yet,” said Kim Plaskett, spokeswoman for Dallas-based Greyhound Lines. “However, the first two weeks in March have been about the same or a little higher compared to last year.”

Plaskett said holidays near spring break, such as Easter, help as well.

“There are a lot of factors involved here, but we can’t currently gauge our success just yet,” Plaskett said.

Some companies declined to speculate at all on their earnings or acknowledged a significant dip in spring break sales.

“We’ve been down a little bit – about 5 percent roughly,” said Brad Lanasa, branch manager of the on-campus Student Travel Association. STA acquired nearby Council Travel last April.

“I think some are holding off for summer, which is similar to what happened after 9/11,” Lanasa said. “It was obviously down in September and October, but it really picked up again by November.”

Lanasa said people who really wanted to go to the Middle East were still going. However, he said a recent study abroad trip to Turkey was canceled due to war jitters.

Lanasa estimated 5 percent to 10 percent of STA’s business is

booking trips to Middle East locales such as Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Israel.

“I see the younger students rather than the older ones sticking it out,” Lanasa said. “The freshmen and sophomores are being more resilient and really wanting their trip, feeling that it’s an important part of the college experience that they want to have Ö The older ones typically want the unrest overall to be over before they make any concrete plans.”

Delta Airlines spokesman John Kennedy said the company is reducing both domestic and international flights by 12 percent, at least until April.

“Obviously, this year traffic numbers have been soft,” Kennedy said.

Illinois-based United Airlines is reducing its schedule by 8 percent and placing an undisclosed number of employees on “authorized no pay” status, spokesman Jeff McAndrews said.

“Bookings are definitely down,” he said. “I don’t have specific numbers, but those go across the board both domestically and internationally.”

United Airlines is currently also in the midst of a protracted, high-profile bankruptcy.

Jaye Hilton, corporate communications manager for Royal Caribbean International, declined to comment on whether the war has affected cruise bookings.

“We follow strict (Securities and Exchange Commission) guidelines and do not publicly discuss booking or sales,” she said.

As anti-American sentiment rises across the world, U.S. colleges are beginning to warn students studying abroad to avoid demonstrations, public debates on U.S. foreign policy or even clothes that might identify them as Americans.

Airlines faltering

The White House’s recent $75 billion war-spending bill did not include aid for the airline industry. Airline industry officials are currently petitioning Congress for $9 billion in federal tax cuts.

The state of Minnesota applied to the U.S. Labor Department on Thursday for $13.9 million in aid to help an estimated 1,990 Northwest workers find new jobs or be retrained.

Minnesota has already received approximately $9.2 million from two federal grants designed to aid bereft travel workers in a slumping post-Sept. 11, 2001, market.

U.S. Labor Secretary Elaine Chao, who was in St. Paul on Tuesday, vowed to help Northwest Airlines workers but stopped short of promising another federal handout.

Chao is a former Northwest Airlines board member.

Some of Eagan, Minn.,-based Northwest Airlines’ routes have lost one round-trip flight daily in an effort to reduce flight capacity by at least 12 percent in the next two months.

Northwest officials have vowed to cut their internal costs by over $1 billion in the coming months.

In addition to flight cuts, Northwest is eliminating more than 4,900 jobs nationwide.

The layoff plans include 1,990 workers in Minnesota, 1,014 in Michigan, 174 in Tennessee and 1,669 “to be determined later,” according a notification filed in accordance with the U.S. Worker Adjustment and Restraining Notification Act.

On Tuesday, the Aircraft Mechanics Fraternal Association filed a formal grievance with Northwest, legally challenging the company’s contractual authority to lay off approximately 2,000 union employees.

The union alleges the layoffs were planned before the war started.

– The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Nathan Hall covers transportation and the environment and welcomes comments at [email protected]

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