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COMPANIES LIKELY TO REDUCE TRAVEL, ADD ABILITY TO VIDEOCONFERENCE

Karen Merkel-Liberatore is scheduled to fly to Dallas on business later this month. But after last week's terrorist hijackings, hopping on an airplane will never be the same -- for her and everyone else.

"Before, you'd just pick up the phone, make the reservation and go," says Merkel-Liberatore, a public relations executive at Delaware North Cos. in Buffalo. "You kind of think twice now."

So are many companies. In the wake of last week's attacks, many local companies are taking a new, hard look at business travel. And even though the nation's airports started reopening on a limited basis on Thursday, businesses were in no rush to have their employees get back in the air.

Delaware North and Rich Products Corp., Buffalo's biggest private companies, suspended all non-essential air travel last week, and both companies are reviewing their travel policies.

"I think the issues with air travel are all something we're sorting through," says Peter Ciotta, a Rich Products spokesman.

"I think it's safe to say companies will be re-evaluating their overall travel policies and objectives, at least for the near term," he says. "I think, in the days ahead, we will be asking the question, 'Is this travel absolutely necessary?' "

Indeed a survey of 187 companies last week by the Business Travel Coalition found that 88 percent of the firms expected employees to voluntarily cut back on travel in the coming weeks.

"There's a feeling of danger that's now associated with business travel -- that you're vulnerable and that it's dangerous," says Rolfe Shellenberger, the senior travel consultant for the Runzheimer International consulting firm. "I think it's going to take a while to shake that."

"An accident is far different from an attack," he says. "I think (the impact) is going to last far longer than in the past."

After all, this was an elaborate, coordinated terrorist attack that doomed four separate flights. What's more, plane crashes rarely are captured on film to be replayed again and again on television. But the World Trade Center crashes were, searing an unforgettable image of Tuesday's tragedy in our memories.

"You usually don't see a plane crash. Here, we watched planes go through buildings," says Tom Parsons, the chief executive officer of Bestfares.com, a travel information Web site.

In many cases, though, travel can't be avoided, especially for companies like Delaware North and Rich Products, which are based here and have operations scattered all over the country. "We cannot eliminate the need for travel," Merkel-Liberatore says. "Most of the travel from Buffalo's headquarters is to best serve our field units."

But thanks to improvements in technology, companies now have other alternatives, such as videoconferencing, Webcasts and teleconferences that they can turn to instead. And last week's attacks are likely to cause more companies to consider investing in expensive videoconferencing equipment, says Kevin P. Mitchell, the chairman of the Business Travel Coalition, which represents big companies like Proctor & Gamble Co. and Ford Motor Co.

"A good deal of the meeting and planning part of travel -- two guys getting together from different parts of the globe -- is going to be replaced," Shellenberger says.

"Companies are taking their hardest look ever at how they will manage their travel in the future," said Jean McDonnell Covelli, the president of the Travel Team, a Buffalo-based company that manages travel services for major local employers like Rich Products, Computer Task Group, Delaware North and HSBC Bank. "It's gone beyond economics. Now, it's pure traveler safety."

"I think you'll see a trend toward rail and car travel," Covelli says, although she thinks travelers gradually will return to the air as they regain confidence about flying, provided there aren't any more disasters in the next few months.

Even before the attacks, companies already were making major cuts in their travel budgets in response to the slowing economy, prompting some analysts to predict that the nation's major airlines could lose as much as $3.5 billion this year. Now, those losses are likely to be even greater.

Beyond the fear, tighter security measures and other restrictions that are likely to be imposed in the wake of the attacks may make air travel even more unappealing, especially on short trips that run 500 miles or less, Mitchell says.

"The new security measures are going to tack another 45 minutes to an hour on to the process of getting on an airplane," he says. On shorter trips, "that's going to cause a lot of people to say, 'Hey, I'm just going to jump into the car.' "

Parsons agrees. "I think you're going to see longer delays, and it could force the airlines to reduce their schedules."

What's more, the cost of the new security measures is sure to be passed on to travelers, who then might balk at paying the higher fares, especially on routes where there isn't much competition.

"The airlines are going to have to pass that cost along, and they're only going to pass that along in short-haul markets, which are typically the monopoly markets," Mitchell says.

Put it all together, and it means big changes for travelers. As Covelli says, "I do not believe that travel, in the future, will ever get back to what it was."

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