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
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
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
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
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
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.