- The Washington Times - Friday, September 21, 2001

Terry Blackwell sits at his desk and waits. And waits. And waits some more. The travel agent for AAA in Alexandria fielded a flurry of calls from travelers seeking to reschedule or cancel flights after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks in New York and Washington. By yesterday, however, the phone calls had slowed to a crawl.
"It's just eerie in here," Mr. Blackwell said yesterday as he listened to the silence. "It's just really strange right now."
Though none of the attacks originated from Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport, the FAA closed the airport on Sept. 11 because of its proximity to national landmarks and the Capitol.
The airport closure, coupled with the fact that September is considered the "dry season" for bookings, has left Mr. Blackwell with little to do.
"The first week, we had nothing but straight cancellations," Mr. Blackwell said, noting that people wanted to switch flights to Washington Dulles International Airport, because they were adamant about taking their vacation uninterrupted.
Mr. Blackwell said most of the flights booked through the agency originate from Reagan Airport. Most people within a 20-mile radius of the airport prefer Reagan to Baltimore-Washington International Airport or Washington Dulles International.
"They really need to get that open soon," he said. "Some people have canceled their trips, not because of concern for their safety, but because of the inconvenience of traveling to BWI or Dulles. I think that's silly."
Though he is confident AAA will survive the slowdown, Mr. Blackwell is worried about the smaller "mom and pop" agencies. "So many agencies depend on airline revenue. I see a lot of small agencies going up, and a lot of price wars happening."
The travel agency normally handles an average of 10 or 15 bookings per day. That number has significantly dropped, but Mr. Blackwell seems happy that anyone is calling in to make travel reservations.
"We had three bookings yesterday. Normally, we'd be hanging our heads down," he said, happy that the company is still getting some business, however small.
Mr. Blackwell said his job requires him to both book and cancel flights with no questions asked. "We don't express an opinion when they cancel. And unless the State Department says they can't go, we cannot force them to stay."
The first business of the day arrived yesterday in the form of an e-mail message asking whether a scheduled cruise to Mexico was still happening. Mr. Blackwell called the person's house and left a message saying nothing had changed.
"As you can imagine, the cruise lines changed their itinerary" if they were traveling anywhere near the Middle East, he said.
Later, he got word that an American Airlines flight he booked for a woman who lives in San Jose, Calif., had been canceled. He held off alerting the woman because it was just past 7 a.m. on the West Coast.
Later, an older couple came into the office to pick up some Amtrak tickets to New York. They normally fly, Mr. Blackwell explained, but wanted to take the train this time. He showed them the tickets explaining that though there is only one name on them, they are good for two travelers. He told the couple about long-term parking available at Union Station.
He advised against it, "too expensive," and gave them the number of a shuttle van service and also told them about Metrorail service.
Mr. Blackwell knows firsthand about Amtrak's new popularity since the attacks.
"We've had so many requests for Amtrak tickets, and they had so many requests, that the system shut down. They've really been busy," he said. "They've been having some financial problems, and maybe this will pick them up."
Mr. Blackwell has been a travel agent for six years, calling the job his "second career."
He started working in an insurance company and realized how much he loved traveling and how much he wanted to help people travel.
"Being able to travel, that's the best part of the job," he said. "When someone's going on a trip and I help plan it, it's like I'm going, too."
The travel agency, like much of the world, let its workers go home early Sept. 11.
But also like much of the world, the agency workers soon returned, ready to go back to work.
"We had, like everyone else, the television on when it happened. Now we have Kathie Lee on," he said, referring to a promotional tape of Carnival Cruise Lines he put into the VCR earlier in the day.

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