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Terrorists and more air security? Heck, though, we will go

Times Staff Writer

THE most recent terrorist threat to flying couldn’t have come at a more crucial time for the industry -- or for travelers.

As authorities said they had thwarted a plot to blow up jets leaving London and bound for the United States, airlines were starting to make money again, and confident passengers packed planes at unprecedented levels. The alleged plot threw off everyone’s calculations.

Although uncertainty remains and new incidents could alter the equation, I think most fliers will adjust. For a while they may cross off some destinations, drive rather than fly on short trips and get to the airport sooner.

But they won’t stop traveling.

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Why do I think that? Because fliers told me so.

Their attitudes mostly lined up with what industry experts said.

“I don’t think a whole lot of people are going to cancel their plans,” said Ron Kuhlmann, vice president of Unisys R2A, a transportation management consultancy with offices near San Francisco.

The new hassles, restrictions and unpredictability of air travel will “weigh down” demand by business travelers, especially for short flights, said Kevin Mitchell, chairman of the Business Travel Coalition, a private advocacy group for buyers of business travel based in Radnor, Pa. But he didn’t foresee a “dramatic falloff in traffic.”

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Travelers interviewed at LAX on that first chaotic day after the alleged plot was uncovered in Britain and in follow-up calls fell into three categories: vacationers, family visitors and businesspeople.

Here’s what they told me.

* Vacationers:

“You can’t live with fear,” said Linda Ropes of Camarillo. She and her husband, Greg, were stuck in a Delta line with their two children about 10 a.m., with little hope of making their 10:20 a.m. flight to Orlando, Fla.

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Upon hearing the headlines, Linda said, “we were ready to cancel. But the kids have been looking forward to this all summer.” On their 10-day trip, they planned to visit theme parks and take a Caribbean cruise.

By the time I caught up with them, the Ropeses had spent two hours in five different lines. Linda said they were reconsidering plans for a Mediterranean cruise next summer.

Postscript: The Ropes family made it to Orlando less than two hours behind schedule. “We were glad we continued on our trip,” Linda said.

Waiting nearby at LAX, also for the Delta flight to Orlando, were Carl and Sally Linhardt and their son Brock from Mission Viejo.

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Languishing in a line past his flight’s departure time didn’t lessen Carl’s thrill at having landed a $1,450 package for all three that included nonstop flights and four nights at a hotel in Walt Disney World.

Nor was he much worried about safety, figuring that with extra security that day, flying was less risky than usual.

As for the future, Carl said he would avoid the Middle East and, at least in the short term, London because “it will be a mess.”

But a family trip to Germany next year was still on, he added, “unless planes are blown up out of the sky.”

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Postscript: Delta held the plane “pretty much for everybody,” Carl said. “The flight was fabulous. The hotel is absolutely wonderful.”

* Family visitors:

“I think I’d be a lot more guarded going to Europe,” said Rob Hampton of Los Angeles, who waited at LAX with his wife, Lynne; mother, Jill; and daughters Emily and Lindsay. They were scheduled to fly on Delta to Savannah, Ga., by way of Atlanta for his cousin’s wedding in Hilton Head, S.C.

“After 9/11, we didn’t travel for a good year and a half,” said Rob, who owns a TV promo production company. But visiting relatives is different.

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The fear factor, he said, “is always going to be outweighed by the need to see your family.”

Postscript: The Hamptons arrived in Atlanta about 1 1/2 hours late and missed their connection. They finally got into Savannah about 1 a.m. and stayed at a hotel there. They made the wedding.

Back at LAX, Richard and Carol Williams waited for an America West flight back home to Houston after spending a week in California for a wedding and vacation.

Carol said the London news wouldn’t affect her willingness to fly.

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“If you’re a Christian, you feel if it’s your time, it’s your time,” she said, adding, “I think we will probably go to London next year for sure.”

Postscript: The Williamses left on time, made their Phoenix connection and got home.

* Business travelers:

“I thought, well, here we go.”

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That was the reaction of Patrick McQuade, a sales manager for a paint company on a business trip to Los Angeles, when he flipped on the TV and learned of the terrorist plot about 5:30 a.m. He was scheduled to fly home to Columbus, Ohio, that afternoon on Continental.

“It’s discouraging,” McQuade said.

After a couple of years of arriving at airports about an hour before domestic departures, he fretted that “we’re going to revert back to post-9/11 days, with two-hour advance arrivals.”

There’s not much he can do, he said, because he flies about twice a month on business.

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One possible adjustment: McQuade usually drives if he can get to his destination in three hours or less.

“That might change a little bit,” he said, as tedious waits at the airport make the car more attractive for longer trips. But with the high price of gas, it will be a tough call, he added.

Postscript: McQuade missed his connection in Houston by 10 minutes, forcing him to stay overnight there before flying out the next morning to Columbus. (The airline paid for his hotel.)

“To top it all off,” he said in an e-mail, “as I was helping an elderly lady through the checkpoint, I left my laptop in one of the bins. I have contacted the TSA [Transportation Security Administration] in Los Angeles, so hopefully I can get it back.”

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Whether McQuade is reunited with his laptop, it’s safe to say that, come this time next year, he’ll still be flying.

Just like the rest of us.

*

Jane Engle welcomes comments but can’t respond individually to letters and calls. Write to Travel Insider, L.A. Times, 202 W. 1st St., L.A., CA 90012, or e-mail jane.engle@latimes.com.

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