The answer to how the economic crunch is affecting the Washington area's vacation travel business these days depends, in part, on which airline or travel agent you consult. But a spot survey last week turned up much concern and no complacency in the industry.
"Business is generally down in all sectors of the market," according to Michael F. Buckley, passenger sales manager for American Airlines in the District. "It's a mixed bag with inflation on one end, price on the other and fuel a major factor in driving the price up.
"The middle-income bracket, which dominates the Washington market, still has disposable income," Buckley said. "I think what's happening is that people are taking a wait-and-see attitude about the economic picture in the country rather than in this area. Because conditions in Washington are still good . . . this is still a good market."
John W. Moor Jr., TWA's manager of passenger sales for Washington, reported that the airline's total first quarter revenue "generated by 650 travel agencies located throughout Delaware, Maryland, Virginia, Washington and North and South Carolina was up 44.8 percent over last year. The critical figure for us is revenue, not number of passengers," Moor said.
The gain occurred despite substantially higher fares and a reduction in the number of flights, Moor pointed out. His figures included both domestic and international travel but there was no breakdown for business and vacation trips.
However, Moor acknowledged that "it's a troubled industry," with one airline benefiting from another's problems. Deregulation with accompanying increased competition, price-cutting and uneconomical promotional fares are all continuing factors, he said.
Lawrence J. Frommer, president of Frommer Travel Service, 1101 17th St. NW, who also writes on travel for trade publications, believes that "one of the great problems in trying to ascertain the business situation candidly is the reluctance of a number of agents to say how things really are. There is a tremendous need to have at least a veneer of apparent success.
"I've chatted with some who will level," said Frommer, who is a certified travel counselor (CTC), generally considered the highest professional rating an agent can attain. "We are beginning to feel the recessionary trend. Not so much among the blue chip-type clients who will be able to go no matter what, but in the middle and high-middle class area where people are beginning to take a second look at how they were going to spend their discretionary dollar and to become a little fixated on the necessities.
"Travel is very pleasurable but it's not necessity," Frommer said. "We're getting calls, inquiries, but bookings are slow in materializing. People seem to want to stay closer to home, cost has become the No. 1 preoccupation. Some of this is also a reticence, a holding back."
Frommer said, "The situation doesn't feel healthy. We're not getting that uninhibited vibrancy. People don't know where the economy is going, there's a big 'wait-and-see' syndrome.
"Travelers are always cost conscious but we were not as concerned last year.
We still had Europe in the fold even though the dollar was badly battered. This year it's a combination of the battering plus tremendous inflation.
"Those that have the money are unfortunately spread pretty thin," Frommer noted wryly. "That's not where the volume is."
Andy Spielman, vice president of Waters Travel, 888 17th St. NW, reports that his business "is up over last year," but added that "throughout the country big money items are the things that are selling while small money items are down. Our big money cruises, the tours to far-away places and China are all selling well."
The philosophy is "we may as well go now, it may cost even more next year," said Spielman, who is also a CTC well known in the industry. "It's the guy with the tight budget, people in the lower middle class, who are looking at increase in air fares, feeling the pinch and deciding it's not worth spending the money."
Tom Todd, manager of the American Express office at 1150 Connecticut Ave. NW, said "business is holding very firm with careful shopping for value. Travel is now, I think, considered almost a necessity, not a luxury. People need to get away and they are.
"We're finding that many peoply, if they are going to Europe, are buying prepaid escorted tours so they'll know wht their total cost will be before departure," Todd said. "It helps them budget available travel funds in a wise way."
A United Airline representative in Washington admitted that though "there's no doubt that the flying is very rough right now . . . we are optimistic.
"A lot of people are blaming deregulation. Insofar as United is concerned, deregulation has provided more latitude for us to cope with the economic problems. We're losing money not because of deregulation but because fewer people are flying. That's due to higher ticket prices which are being driven up by higher fuel prices."