Sept. 11, 2001 will be remembered as one of the most profound days in American history.
When four airliners went down in New York City, Washington, D.C., and Somerset County, Pa., a wakeup call was sounded around the world.
From the first shocking news reports to the endless analysis that followed, we knew our lives would never be the same again.
The paths limousine operators chose to travel in the weeks and months that followed 9/11, have shaped a leaner and meaner industry.
Because we are part of the largest business in the world – tourism – we had to change the way we do business in order to survive.
Hundreds in our industry did not survive those tumultuous days following Sept. 11. Planes were not flying and people were not traveling on business jaunts and vacations. Instead, there was uncertainty and cutbacks.
The View From New York
Caught up in the mass confusion of the New York City area on Sept. 11, Barbara Chirico of Gem Limousine in Woodbridge, N.J., has since been cited for her efforts transporting those who needed rides around Manhattan and for her heroic efforts garnering funds to keep operators in business, post 9/11.
At the time, Chirico was president of the NLA. She took “many calls trying to give everyone hope, saying we will come out of this and we will get them help.”
To this day, she says, “It’s still very, very hard to talk about it. It’s something that’s touched all of our lives.” Chirico believes “the industry is slowly coming out of it, but it’s done so much damage to the industry.”
She adds, “Hundreds lost their companies, but it didn’t happen all at once. You’re still feeling all the effects. People are still going under.”
In Chirico’s words: “I was in New Jersey. The smoke from the Twin Towers was just outside my office window. We had cars in the city; we had cars all over; and people we had just dropped off at the World Trade Center. We had calls from the family members of people who had taken our cars. We had family members in the city we were waiting to hear from. We had cars that couldn’t get out of the city and cars that couldn’t get into the city.
“It was 24 hours until we knew where everyone was and who we lost – clients, family of our staff. We lost several. But we were the fortunate ones. No one employed by Gem Limousine was lost. Being so close to where it was is just…the feeling that comes to you is just so devastating.
“During that time we all just prayed together that we’d all come out of it and be OK. “I know it affected people from across the world, but when you’re right here it’s a different story.
“I sit on the edge of my chair every day and wonder if today there could be another devastation. It’s never far from being right there. You turn on the TV and when there’s the news about the war in Iraq or another terrorist attack, it’s just one thing that could bring us right back down to where we were. I try to stay positive and go on with life and not let the terrorists think they can control our lives.”
Chirico advises that in order to stay in business, we must “make the right business moves. It’s a different world out there. The whole travel industry is still upside down. The way people are buying travel is so different today. Everyone is more cost conscious.”
As a business owner, she says you must “wake up every day with a positive attitude. Always have a smile on your face in front of your employees to give them hope.”
And, she says, “Everyone has to look at their expenses and their spreadsheet. If they think they’ve cut everywhere they can, look again. There’s still room to cut. Make smart purchases on equipment. Make smart decisions.”
She says from her heart, “I don’t think I’d want to be in any other industry in the world, no matter what. The limousine industry is something I eat, sleep and live and I wouldn’t want it any other way.”
The View From Washington
According to Carey International Chairman of the Board Vince Wolfington, “The industry is, of course, at risk. The probability of there being another event like 9/11 is greater for the next two years than it has been today.”
Based in Washington, D.C., Wolfington says this is “the nature of the way the terrorists operate, which is a like a hit-and-run type of thing. He believes “our business can surely be impacted by that, and of course, that impacts insurance. After 9/11, the cost of insurance went through the ceiling because those companies had tremendous losses to recover.”
Since there are few real preparations for terrorist events, Wolfington advises, “What operators have to do is operate lean and have the ability to retrench.”
For nearly a year following Sept. 11, the travel industry was down about 25 percent, while the chauffeured vehicle service industry was down 25 percent to 30 percent. According to Wolfington, “Carey was down 12 percent” in that same period. The reason we were down less, is because in uncertain times, customers flee to quality or what they perceive to be quality.”
He adds, ”At the World Travel and Tourism Council, I chaired a subcommittee on terrorism and the impact it has on travel globally. We have learned that countries, including the U.S., are becoming more sensitized to the threat of terrorism.”
Wolfington states, “People will travel with the fear of terrorism risk as long as they think that their destination is taking measures to mitigate the risk. Secondly, countries that have experienced attacks after 9/11 have also rebounded more quickly. For instance, the resilience in Spain after the train bombing in Madrid had economic activity back to normal 15 days after the terrorist attack. The city of Madrid rebounded a little more slowly, but still was back to normal sooner than former terrorist attacks in other countries.”
He believes another attack would not be as devastating to the industry. “It is likely that another event similar to Sept. 11 will not have as long a depressing impact on the travel and tourism industry in general and our industry specifically as before.”
To prepare for the future, Wolfington says, “Terrorists act on the basis of surprise. Members of our industry should train drivers to be alert to spot circumstances that just don’t seem right or are out of the ordinary, and be prepared to communicate such observations to the local police.”
He says, “Homeland Security alerts are intended to undermine the element of surprise; they are also a good warning system for our industry.” Another idea for preparation is to establish communication links with local police departments so there’s a line of communication to report anything unusual.
Also, just as our operators dispatch operations and monitor traffic reports, they should track terrorist alerts issued by the State Department and Homeland Security Web sites. “The fact that our industry is aware and has initiated policies related to terrorism awareness will impress customers who use limousine service. Local authorities will also be impressed and therefore more likely to be cooperative,” Wolfington says.
The View From Boston
From the Boston area, where two of the four hijacked planes originated their flights on Sept. 11, Scott Solombrino, president of Dav El Chauffeured Transportation Network and current president of the NLA, believes the limousine industry has recouped since 9/11.
Solombrino thinks “what’s really important for a follow-up story for Sept. 11 is that the chauffeured transportation business has been totally transformed and it’s not going back. People have now changed their travel habits completely. The person who used to take five or six trips a month is now taking two trips a month. That is a dramatic change in how people are doing business. They’re much more conscious of leaving their family alone and being in the wrong place at the wrong time.”
He also cites the rising cost of insurance. “It was forced by the drop in the stock market to reevaluate and recalibrate how they were making money. The result of that was that transportation industry insurance has not come back down again. In some cases insurance is up 300 percent. All of that has had a long-term negative effect. People are still paying very, very high rates of insurance.”
Besides insurance, other companies in corporate America “were forced to reevaluate every cost, post-9/11. Sept. 11 put the finishing touches on a recession that was already brewing. Our industry has become part of a new mentality, a commodity where people just go by cost.”
He states, “Both big and small companies have been forced to become competitive. If you can get it for $50, why are you going to pay $100 from company B? That is a change that I’ve seen since 9/11 that I’ve never seen before. Even though business is picking up, I think people are doing more business, but are making less money. It’s a new phenomenon. Price is driving decisions like never before.”
One positive note: Because there are fewer limo companies, “That’s helping the companies that survived. There are less people competing for the same dollars.” And, according to Solombrino, “Any outside threat that has the potential of impacting the industry becomes a lightning rod for instant unification.”
United We Stand
The costs of 9/11 are still being added up every day, in terms of higher gas prices and insurance costs, uncertainty in world politics and business practices, and in the high human toll being paid on the war front and in terrorist attacks.
The chauffeured transportation industry cannot become complacent and forget the lessons learned on Sept. 11. If we are to emerge stronger, we have to have a game plan that will strengthen us.
One thing we have learned is that there’s strength in numbers. If you fight alone, you’ll probably fail. But with other operators standing beside you, people will listen. Whether it’s changing an unfair law or helping another operator during the busy season – if we stand beside each other for what we believe is right –– we’ll all be stronger and better equipped to deal with whatever comes our way.