Reporter's notebook: Back from Belgium

Travel Weekly senior editor Michael Milligan was in Brussels on Sept. 11 for AAA's annual conference when the FAA imposed an immediate ground stop on all U.S. flights and diverted international flights to Canada. His report follows:

he Sept. 11 shutdown of the U.S. air travel system left me stranded in Belgium. My flight home was canceled, as was every other flight to the U.S.

I was on my own, but I wasn't without a travel agent. I was stranded with 300 travel retailers who were in Brussels attending AAA's annual conference.

The theme of the conference was "High Tech, High Touch." Discussion before the attack had to do with reminding AAA agencies that the key to keeping clients and remaining profitable was good customer service.

The conference then quickly shifted from theory to practice. Immediately, the AAA agents sprang into action, in cooperation with the suppliers attending the conference.

It became clear the conference could not go on -- and the attendees could not go home. AAA officials called for a general meeting at the end of the day.

The meeting was held in the ballroom where much of the conference had been taking place. Video displays showed CNN's coverage of the day's events.

Robert Darbelnet, AAA's president and chief operating officer, explained that planes en route to and from the U.S. had either been diverted to other countries such as Canada or were grounded.

He also said that in the few hours since the attacks, he and his staff had made arrangements to extend everyone's stay at the Hilton Brussels (the site of the conference). Hotel officials, who have a long relationship with AAA, immediately obliged.

AAA also arranged to have a doctor available to help attendees who needed prescriptions refilled. A grief counselor was called in to help attendees unable to cope with the attacks or who may have lost friends and family. Day tours also were scheduled to keep attendees busy.

Working with a Galileo representative, eight AAA members established a makeshift travel agency in the hotel. They collected everyone's travel data and went to work developing new arrangements.

The next day at lunch, Darbelnet began to spell out options for attendees. Their best advice was to rebook everyone on flights out of nearby major cities, including Amsterdam, Frankfurt, London and Paris.

AAA also recommended everyone book full-fare tickets to reduce the chance they could be bumped.

And one other announcement: Darbelnet told attendees that diplomats from Libya were slated to host a dinner for their counterparts from other countries, including the U.S., at the hotel that evening. That event was later canceled.

AAA rebooked me on Air France, and the next day, I picked up a paper ticket. The following day, I was on a motorcoach -- also arranged by AAA -- on my way to Paris and the Hilton at Charles de Gaulle Airport.

Two days after that, I was on an Air France flight back to the U.S. Certainly the events of Sept. 11 were extraordinary. But one almost had the impression that no circumstance is beyond the skills of eight experienced travel agents.

I'm not sure what I would have done if I had booked my travel arrangements over the Internet. It is very possible that travel Web sites could have duplicated what human travel agents did.

But somehow I suspect I'd still be in Brussels right now.

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