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Demand Still Is High for Land Travel

AMERICA ATTACKED | TRAVEL

Commerce: Business is way up for car rental companies, Greyhound, Amtrak. But no one knows whether this is a short-term phenomenon.

September 15, 2001|BETH SHUSTER and HECTOR TOBAR | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

Rental car companies are trying harder and harder and harder to meet the huge demand for vehicles since the massive disruption in the country's transportation system. Train ridership has doubled. Greyhound bus business has tripled and quadrupled in some cities.

Countless Americans are driving cross-country, taking days to complete journeys that used to take hours. Some corporate executives and celebrities are renting sport utility vehicles, even chartering buses. Other stranded air passengers are taking Amtrak or going Greyhound.

Whether this short-term phenomenon will continue is unclear, but it may foreshadow a longer-term change as travelers reject long delays at airports and find other forms of transportation. "The great unknown," said Richard Broome, vice president of corporate affairs for Hertz, "is how quickly this will change. Will people fly?"

Catherine Burke, professor of public administration at USC, said she expects air travel to go through a significant down period in which potential passengers shy away from flying out of fear or because they don't want to put up with the long waits. But she predicted that after about a year, air travel probably will return to normal. "They might be afraid now, but people are not going to give up on air travel, not at all," she said.

Long before Tuesday's terrorist attacks, Amtrak proposed expanding its train system, including the possibility of building a multibillion-dollar high-speed rail line connecting most major California cities.

Burke said it was unlikely, even after this week's terrorism, that large-scale, high-speed rail projects would gain favor as an alternative to most domestic air travel. "It sounds great, but unlike a place like Europe, where people do use these kinds of rail systems, our country has distances that are just too far to go. . . . I just don't think it is terribly feasible," she said.

For now, however, almost any alternative to air travel will do. Rental car companies report huge increases in one-way business. Avis, for example, says it has seen a tripling in the number of cars destined for out-of-town locations. "We're not even sure where a lot of our cars are," said Avis spokesman Ted Deutsch. Hertz says it has rented about 1,000 cars to motorists headed east.

Ashlee French, a 31-year-old computer project manager for Blue Cross Blue Shield, car-pooled cross-country from Washington, D.C., to Austin, Texas, with a group of strangers she met at a car rental agency just hours after Tuesday's bombings. "There was a long line at the rental agency, and they were running out of cars," she said.

After more than two hours stuck in D.C. traffic, they hit the open road, making it to Atlanta that night in a group of four that included a computer specialist from South Carolina and a pediatrician from Jacksonville, Fla. After a night in an Atlanta hotel, she joined another impromptu carpool at the Atlanta airport car rental agency. Her fellow passengers this time included a Delta pilot from Texas who had been grounded by the crisis.

Many rental car companies are waiving fees typically charged when their vehicles are driven only one way. Still, some company officials say motorists get sticker shock when they see the costs involved. "These long-haul, unusual routes are the most expensive ones," Broome said.

Ken Kerzner, president of Budget Rental Car Beverly Hills, the Car Collection, said he has rented Suburbans and Mercedes-Benz sport utility vehicles to customers to the East. "It's a long trip. You feel for these people," Kerzner said.

Amtrak added trains in many parts of the country. The rail company estimates that it is carrying twice the usual number of passengers between Washington and New York. The Coast Starlight, running from Los Angeles' Union Station to Seattle, experienced about a 35% jump in ridership after Tuesday's attacks, said spokeswoman Liz O'Donoghue.

Most of Amtrak's long-distance trains are fully booked well into next week.

At Union Station, travelers who had planned to take plane trips were spotted all week long, waiting for trains and discussing how their plans had changed.

"I love to fly and had a round-trip plane ticket," Connie White said as she waited to take what would be at least a 36-hour train ride home to Great Falls, Mont. "But I'm not even going to wait around L.A. to get home on a plane, not this week."

Across the country, in New York's Penn Station, travelers expressed a mixture of frustration and relief. Some who had been trapped for days finally found out Friday they could get home, while others discovered they would have to wait until Tuesday or Wednesday.

"I'm finally on my way," said Irena Pisarczyk, 35, a nurse from Hartford, Conn., who was trying to get home from a nurses convention in Buffalo, N.Y. She had waited for a flight out of Buffalo for two days before taking a 7 1/2-hour train ride to New York and another connection to her home.

Still other stranded passengers chose to take the bus. Passenger ridership from Los Angeles has doubled every day since Tuesday; ridership tripled from Newark to points west and quadrupled from Las Vegas.

"Most of our business is 400 miles or shorter, but we're seeing a lot more people going from west to east and east to west," said Kristin Parsley, a Greyhound spokeswoman in Dallas. "The other day I saw American Airlines pilots, flight attendants, lots of business travelers who have never gone Greyhound before."

But the limo business is hurting. Several Los Angeles companies say they have had hundreds of cancellations because of the airline disruptions and the entertainment postponements.

"I would say Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday the business was just completely in the toilet," said Lee Stern of Celebrity Executive Cars. "We lost 100% of our business."

*

Times staff writers Charles Ornstein and Kurt Streeter contributed to this story.

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