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On the Road Again?

In the wake of the September 11 terrorist attacks, San Francisco bureau chief George Anders wrote a story assessing what life would now be like for road warriors all over the United States. Then he boarded a plan for New Jersey. Here’s his account.

I am on a Continental flight from SFO to Newark. I look around me. No one is flying. There were supposed to be 23 passengers on this plane. We ended up with 10. I asked for and got an upgrade into first class for no good reason. Just before takeoff, one of the flight attendants asked if I minded if the entire planeload of passengers, such as they were, moved up to first class. Sure, I said. So 10 people are sitting with me in the 12 seats up front. Coach is utterly empty.

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One of the flight attendants took me through passenger traffic statistics on this flight for the past few days. Yesterday was the lowest, but it’s been the same story all week. Between 30 and 50 people book seats. About half of them show up.

Until September 11, nonstop air travel seemed glamorous, fun, and outright addictive. It was a way to make a mark on the business scene all over the United States, while being honored repeatedly with bonus frequent-flier miles and first-class upgrades.

Now it’s a different world.

So what will the busiest business travelers do about it? Amazing as it seems, there will be a few stoics who try to shrug off the horrendous hijackings and crashes of September 11 as if they never happened. Look for those people to resume flying as energetically as ever. Others may view air travel with such dread that they’ll restrict their flying for a long time to come.

But for most road warriors, it’s time to find a compromise that feels right. That means rethinking old travel habits and paring back on some trips that were barely worth it — even before this month’s disasters. Expect a rise in videoconferencing, long-distance phone calls, emails, and other indirect ways of staying in touch. Yet there are plenty of times when being there in person is the only way to get the job done right.

And in such cases, expect to see business travelers boarding planes again. They may not be as jubilant or as boastful as they used to be about their premier or platinum status in airline mileage programs. Nonetheless, they will be back.

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In Denver, for example, J.D. Kleinke has built up a very successful consulting firm, Health Strategies Network, by traveling across the country to work with clients. “As a constant business traveler the past 12 years,” he says, “I expect that my brethren and I will adapt.” But he is braced for the end of discount fares, for a smaller number of airlines offering fewer flight choices, and for a general tone of “anxiety and furtiveness.”

Airline executives themselves are telling people to rethink their long-held ideas about air travel. Tighter airport security is bound to mean longer lines and an end to the carefree days of getting to the airport 10 minutes before departure time, still expecting to make the flight. Curbside check-in is a thing of the past. And airlines may be much less willing to indulge travelers who want to rework their itineraries in a hurry at the departure gate.

For short-haul flights especially — such as the popular shuttles in the Northeast — the newly imposed security rules may have a long-lasting affect on flying’s appeal. United Airlines chairman and CEO Jim Goodwin indirectly acknowledged that in an email last week to more than 1 million enrollees in his carrier’s frequent-flier program. In it, he declared: “Travel as we know it will be changing dramatically.” He explained the new security rules and then asked for his customers’ patience and understanding.

Visit any of the busiest U.S. airports this week, and you can’t help but be struck by three things. First, the airports look like ghost towns. Counters are closed. Passenger lines are tiny, if they exist at all. Even parking lots are so lightly used that all the good spaces are still available.

I chat with check-in agents and flight crews, and they soon start talking about safety worries. But their most immediate concern is this: Will I still have a job in two weeks? Is this industry going to survive? Is this company? They aren’t bitter, and they aren’t hostile. They are trying to do their jobs right. But they are very jolted by the sense that all of a sudden, everyone has stopped flying, that there’s no clear sense of when business will resume, and that every airline could be just a few steps from possible bankruptcy. A check-in clerk told me: “Tell your friends to come back [and fly again]. We need you.”

Extra security forces have arrived in a big way. At San Francisco International Airport, there are customs officers with pistols strapped to their waists. There are U.S. Marshals wearing distinctive olive T-shirts, eating lunch at a noodle shop. There are even San Francisco city policemen, riding bicycles so they can travel briskly up and down long corridors that lead to departure gates.

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Safety is a big concern. When they join the airline, crews are trained in how to deal with hijackers. They said that they haven’t gotten refresher courses in the past 10 days. They want to know more. They want to know what’s different now. (Should you fight at all costs?) They’re concerned that a lot of onboard safety is designed for a different era — for example, they have plastic handcuffs to subdue out-of-control passengers, but the cuffs are locked up in a cabinet and must be unlocked. That’s fine for dealing with Mr. Tipsy — but not much use for a September 11 scenario.

The usual airport atmosphere of commotion and excitement is missing. Frisky toddlers aren’t wandering away from their parents anymore. Workers at security checkpoints aren’t shooting the breeze with their colleagues. Late-to-the-gate passengers aren’t running down the hallways. Everyone steps guardedly and cautiously, watching fellow passengers and knowing that they are being watched as well.

How long this will last is anyone’s guess. Companies such as Hewlett-Packard, Gillette, and Washington Mutual of Seattle have told employees to think twice about business travel and to take only those trips that are essential to corporate business. A few other companies have told employees not to travel at all for the time being.

Historically, terrorism scares have led to brief, albeit severe, drops in airline-passenger traffic. Seats have begun filling up within a few months after the most alarming headlines faded away. This time, though, the casualties — and the circumstances — have been much more shocking than any previous attack on air travel.

“I’m not eager to fly right now and am glad my activities do not require it,” says Jim Friedlich, a media-acquisition specialist with Zelnick Media in New York. In years past, he has criss-crossed the globe, pursuing deals. Now, he says, he is content to do his business from a steady base in New York.

All the same, look on the Internet, and already it’s possible to see the first stirrings of renewed interest in the road warrior’s life. On eBay this week, a Michigan resident listed for sale 1,000 frequent-flyer miles on American Airlines that were awarded as part of a cereal-company promotion. “If you need additional quantities, let me know,” the seller wrote. “I have a lot but am afraid to fly.”

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Within two days of posting that listing, the seller had already attracted 13 bids, including a top bid of $20.50 — more than the two cents a mile that such certificates usually fetch.

George Anders (ganders@fastcompany.com) is a Fast Company senior editor.