Air Transport World

The next wave: The calamitous impact of SARS on air travel suggests that the industry has entered a new period of extreme uncertainty.

The only thing we have to fear is fear itself." That oftquoted line from Franklin Delano Roosevelt's first inaugural address could be the catchphrase for the world's airlines as formerly carefree jetsetters hide in their homes clutching masks for fear of contracting Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome or fretting about blundering into a terrorist attack while on vacation.

Arguments that such fears are vastly overblown when measured against the risks we freely accept in our day-to-day lives--in a normal year tens of thousands will die from the common flu, not to mention automobile accidents--do not reassure a skittish population weaned on a steady diet of TV disaster reporting. Besides, it is hard to blame the media, or the traveling public, for the fact that Hong Kong has became a ghost town when it was the World Health Organization that told everyone to avoid the city in the first place.

Unfortunately, while WHO proved very good at scaring people away, its late-April declaration that SARS was "under control" in Hong Kong, Singapore, Vietnam and Toronto was unlikely to have a reverse effect, at least not with the rapidity that airlines needed. Peter Harbison, founder of the Centre for Asia-Pacific Aviation, notes that "SARS itself is arguably largely a media and travel syndrome. It was unpredicted, unprecedented and, once it gained momentum, unstoppable." But he cautions that it "was more than a beat-up, it was symptomatic of a greatly increased sensitivity of the public generally and of air travelers in particular."

Harbison even has a name for this new phenomenon: "Constant-Shock Syndrome." It has, he warns, set in for the long haul. "This is now a serious factor for airline boardrooms to consider when they ponder expansion strategies," he says.

There is no doubt that the public has become highly sensitized to risk, both real and perceived. The accumulation of factors-9/11, the bombings in Bali and the Philippines, the Iraq war--meant that the arrival of the "killer mystery virus" hit a nerve that was well and truly exposed. …

Log in to your account to read this article – and millions more.