As swine flu spreads, travel industry reels

Rebecca (left) and Gina Gregory waited yesterday at Logan Airport to check in for their flight to Chihuahua, Mexico. The sisters, who were traveling to a family wedding, said they aren't concerned about swine flu. Rebecca (left) and Gina Gregory waited yesterday at Logan Airport to check in for their flight to Chihuahua, Mexico. The sisters, who were traveling to a family wedding, said they aren't concerned about swine flu. (Wendy Maeda/Globe Staff)
By Naomi Kooker and Jenn Abelson
Globe Staff / May 1, 2009
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Joe Deblois and Kathleen Crowley were really looking forward to their beach wedding in Tulum, Mexico, on May 14. That is, until the Haverhill couple called their 27 guests and found that many were uncomfortable traveling to Mexico during the swine flu outbreak.

The couple was able to relocate the nuptials to Punta Cana, Dominican Republic, on the same date, though Deblois laments that the Mexican beach "is supposed to be one of the nicest beaches in the world."

As the number of cases of swine flu grows, panic is spreading among some travelers. Vice President Biden told NBC's "Today" show yesterday that he would tell his family not to go "anywhere in confined places now," including planes. And airlines, tour companies, and cruise lines are halting flights, changing itineraries and ports of call, slashing fares, or loosening penalties as more travelers cancel or postpone trips.

If the virus continues to spread, analysts say, the outbreak could have negative long-term effects on the US travel industry. They say the airline industry has not been able to recover from a series of setbacks that have hurt travel, including the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks; the outbreak of SARS, or severe acute respiratory syndrome, in 2003; fuel price spikes last year; and the current recession.

"This is an industry that can't catch a break," said Terry Trippler, an airline consultant. "The airlines are just getting some legs under them, looking like they are going to have a good summer and then this hits. The long-term effect depends on how quickly this is brought under control."

The outcome for the industry could also depend on how fearful travelers are.

In an attempt to calm concerns, James C. May, chief executive of the Air Transport Association of America, a trade group, quickly responded yesterday to the comments made by Biden, who is known for making off-the-cuff remarks, by calling them "extremely disappointing."

"The airlines have been working daily with government agencies, none of whom suggest people avoid air travel, unless they are not feeling well," he said. "The fact is that the air on board a commercial aircraft is cleaner than that in most public buildings."

Still, several major carriers have loosened cancellation restrictions. And a spokeswoman for Continental Airlines, Julie King, said trimming flight schedules would not be out of the question for the airline, which is the US industry leader in flights to Mexico. American Airlines and US Airways are second and third, respectively.

Meanwhile, travel analysts say fares to Mexico can be found for as little as $260 round trip. Summer is the slow season for travel to Mexico, and airlines may be cutting prices further to fill seats in light of the swine flu outbreak. Fares for flights to Mexico City from the United States have dropped in the past few days, averaging less than $300, said Rick Seaney, chief executive of But the deals are less plentiful to other destinations: "While Mexico City looks like it was singled out a little bit, we haven't seen any dramatic price cuts to the resort cities," Seaney said. "It's not unusual to see some discounting anyway for summer travel."

Despite the reductions, some travel agents say they are scrambling to rebook trips for travelers. Within one hour yesterday, for instance, Atlas Travel International in Milford canceled two parties slated to travel to Mexico.

"Fifty percent are changing to a different destination, and the other 50 percent is wait-and-see," said Elaine Osgood, president of Atlas.

Nancy Greenfield, director of leisure sales at Garber Travel in Chestnut Hill, said yesterday that the agency is trying to rebook three large wedding parties planning trips to Mexico over the next few weeks. But travelers aren't just cancelling trips to Mexico: One party flying to Tampa canceled its trip because of a "weakened immune" system, she said.

Growing concerns over swine flu prompted Danielle Duquette, 23, to cancel her Cancun vacation next week and instead book a trip to Punta Cana. "I was already worried about the drug cartels and the swine flu just pushed me over the edge," the Braintree resident said yesterday.

Not everybody is cancelling trips, however. Gina and Rebecca Gregory of Wrentham said they aren't concerned about their trip to Chihuahua, Mexico, for a wedding. "I think people are overreacting," Gina Gregory, 28, said yesterday. "But we do have a backup plan to drive up to the border if all flights are shut down."

Johnny Diaz, Paul Makishima, and Todd Wallack of the Globe staff contributed to this report.

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