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
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
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
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
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
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.