hen I was in Berlin recently, Travel Weekly's Europe editor, Ken Kiesnoski, and I were invited by Kirsten Schmidt of Berlin Tourism to join her at one of that city's "dark restaurants."

These are not candlelit bistros but establishments whose dining rooms are pitch black. To avoid any light contamination, all who enter must remove their phosphorescent watches and turn off their cell phones. If you want to look at a menu, you do so upstairs in a small bar with low lighting. Or, if you'd rather, you can -- as Kirsten and I did -- choose the "surprise menu," where the chef will decide what you'll eat.

In the absolutely dark dining room, you're greeted by a waiter who is blind and who, accustomed to being in the dark, easily maneuvers among the tables. Patrons place their hands on his shoulder and he leads them to their seats.

Here is what happens when one eats in the dark: Water gets spilled. Carrot soup is mistaken by one person for cauliflower, by another for broccoli. Forks are useful, knives are not.

We knew where we were, and we knew, in a general sense, what we were supposed to do -- eat. But unlike a lit restaurant, where one can look at what's on a fellow diner's table, easily summon a waiter to ask a question or even send the soup back if you notice a fly in it, we never knew how big the portions might be, whether the food was going to be appetizing or how much time would elapse between courses.

In other words, eating in the dark is a lot like working in the travel industry these days.

We know, in general, what we're supposed to do -- sell travel products. But with the unknowns surrounding the war in Iraq, a stubbornly lethargic global economy, the threat of terrorism and the emergence of a mysterious virus, it's a brave soul indeed who steps before the public and predicts specifics concerning what exactly will happen, and when.

But last week, the courageous men and women of the Federal Aviation Administration issued -- as they have every year since 1975 -- the Aerospace Forecast, a thick document outlining what the agency believes is likely to happen with air traffic over the next 10 years. Last year's predictions had air traffic returning to pre-9/11 traffic levels sometime in 2004, but this year's predictions push that milestone back to sometime from 2005 to 2006.

Nonetheless, the report is cautiously optimistic (the press release headline says, "Recovery Pace Slow but Determined"), and it's comforting to know that, by and large, the FAA has a fairly good track record at prognosticating. Looking back at its predictions in 1996, its forecasts for the next five years were only off by 2.3%. But from 2001 on, their crystal ball became seriously clouded.

To complicate matters, the current FAA forecast does not take into account "the possibility of military action," "higher jet-fuel costs" or "the potential for more airline bankruptcies."

In just one week, these have all moved from the category of "variable" to either "very likely" or "certainty," and it casts a bit of a pall over the talk of a recovery that's optimistically described as "slow." On the same day the FAA issued its forecast, a different company in the predictions business, Standard & Poor's, placed nine domestic (including profitable Southwest) and two international airlines on its credit watch list. Individual airlines, seeing near-term threats clearly, deeply cut their transatlantic flight schedules, which will affect two key FAA predictive indicators: enplanements and revenue passenger miles.

The FAA press release accompanying the forecast says it provides "planners a prediction tool to respond to a rapidly changing airspace system," but this 10-year plan, while valuable for providing details on actions related to FAA initiatives, lost its predictive credibility just days after its release.

We're back in the dark again, and it appears that, this time around, we're all getting the surprise menu.


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