A spate of overseas flight cancellations combined with new security rules for foreigners entering the United States have raised new concerns about international travel at a time...

Share story

A spate of overseas flight cancellations combined with new security rules for foreigners entering the United States have raised new concerns about international travel at a time when many were feeling optimistic for the first time since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

“It makes people nervous. No question,” said Bruce McIndoe, chief executive officer of iJET Travel Risk Management, a Maryland-based company that advises business travelers on risks.

Delays and cancellations of British Airways and Air France flights to the United States during the holidays because of U.S. security concerns “are having a dampening effect on people who are concerned about getting caught up in all of this,” said McIndoe. “It will be interesting to see if it all translates into people deferring travel or not.”

Most Read Stories

Unlimited Digital Access. $1 for 4 weeks.

More worrisome, said Cathy Keefe of the Travel Industry Association of America, are new rules that went into effect last week requiring visitors from many countries to be fingerprinted and photographed as they enter the United States through airports and cruise-ship ports.

“There’s a lot of confusion among international travelers right now,” said Keefe, whose group monitors the economic impact of visitors coming from overseas. “Many foreign travelers are not aware of the reasons for the program,” she said, and information about it is unavailable in other languages. “We just want to make sure it’s not taken the wrong way.”

Seattle-Tacoma International Airport has so far been unaffected by the cancellations of flights from London and Paris, but airport security has been stretched since the government elevated the terrorist alert to “high.” As the winter holidays came to an end, nearly 100,000 people moved through the airport last Sunday, creating long lines and delays, said spokesman Bob Parker.

Sea-Tac officials are still advising travelers to arrive at the airport two hours ahead of time, but things should improve in the next few weeks as the numbers drop back to an average 60,000 per day, Parker said.

“What we see is a pretty clear switch from the vacation-leisure travelers back to whatever level of business travel we’re going to have.”

Air France operates no flights out of Sea-Tac, but British Airways operates non-stop daily service from Seattle to London. The flight is popular because it’s the only nonstop between the two cities.

“When I heard about the cancellations last week, I thought, ‘Oh Lord, what more can happen,’ but we really didn’t see much of an effect,” said Elizabeth Holmes, owner of Elizabeth Holmes Travel in Seattle. “Really, people tend to go by price,” and if they don’t want to fly British, she said there are other, often cheaper options from Seattle to Europe, including daily flights on Northwest Airlines to Amsterdam and on Scandinavian Airlines to Copenhagen.

“There should be some terrific fare sales this month and next,” said Joe Brancatelli, who operates a Web site for business travelers at www.joesentme.com. Business travelers, however, may run out of patience.

“I don’t think the fear of terrorism or even terrorism itself would deter business travel at this stage,” he said. “But the annoyance factor — any flight delayed or canceled at any time — will.”

McIndoe, of the iJET travel-security firm, said he doesn’t believe U.S. authorities are biased against foreign airlines. It’s just that “foreign carriers carry more non-U.S. citizens,” and terrorist groups consider Britain “the second most evil Western country next to the U.S.”

The cancellations and delays have been due to a stepped-up enforcement of security rules on matching names on terrorist watch lists to airline passenger lists — an increased emphasis that he sees as temporary.

“They’ve always had these kinds of close matches. Normally they’ll vet it and say it looks OK and it will never impact the flight. It’s just in the last few weeks that’s it’s not been acceptable.”

The U.S. government’s controversial fingerprinting and photographing of foreign nationals that began Monday will likely have a long-term impact.

Tourists and business travelers on short visas from 27 mostly European nations are exempt, as are Canadians and Mexicans, but many others, including Russian and Brazilian citizens, are not.

“Our concerns are not with the concept of the program,” Keefe said. “It’s that the program was rolled out very quickly,” with only one month of testing at the airport in Atlanta. “We’re concerned that all the kinks haven’t been worked out. In theory, it’s only supposed to take 15 seconds per traveler. The question is, is that going to happen?”

Brazil responded to the new rules by requiring U.S. visitors to be photographed and fingerprinted, but officials from Rio de Janeiro, the country’s top tourist destination, are appealing that decision.

International travelers contribute a tremendous amount of money to the U.S. economy, Keefe said, and after huge drops in the past two years, overseas travel was expected to rise 5 percent.

“What we want is a balance between homeland security and economic security.”

Carol Pucci: 206-464-3701 or cpucci@seattletimes.com