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Companies cutting back on business travel for now

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BOSTON — From tiny software companies to Fortune 500 giants, American businesses are keeping their employees at home this week.

The question is whether short-term plans to cancel meetings and rely on telephone and video conferences will translate into a permanently changed attitude toward corporate air travel.

In Michigan, Ford Motor Co. has limited travel except for emergencies. General Motors isn't sending anyone abroad and is scrutinizing domestic travel plans.

In New Jersey, pharmaceutical giants Johnson & Johnson and Merck are discouraging nonessential travel, as is Miami-based transportation company Ryder System.

"Only travel when it's absolutely necessary from a cost-containment standpoint," said Scott Mall, Ryder vice president for communications of the company's policy. "Think about your travel. Do you have to do it? Is it safe? If not, postpone it or cancel it."

All this comes at the worst possible time for the airline industry. In the wake of last Tuesday's attacks, several airline stocks were off more than 40 percent Monday, and US Airways said it would lay off 11,000 workers and reduce its flight capacity by 23 percent.

In Boston's Logan Airport Monday, engineer Earl Turner cut a lonely figure waiting for a flight home to Lafayette, La. He was one of just a handful of business travelers in the half-empty airport.

"Business trips are a necessity," Turner said. "You might try to reduce the business trips, but it's inevitable business people are going to travel. They have to."

But the reality is that, at least for now, many companies have called off travel and say they will be evaluating their permanent travel policies.

"I'm seeing a lot of caution on the part of our members," said Allison Marble, a spokeswoman for the National Business Travel Association, which represents the in-house travel agents of major companies. "Most of them, I still think, believe travel is going to be an essential part of their business, but even before this a lot of our member companies were cutting back on all but essential travel because of the costs and downturn in the economy."

Numerous conventions and conferences have been postponed.

"We do not feel comfortable asking any of you to travel at this time to attend our event," Yusuf Mehdi, vice president of Microsoft's MSN, said in an e-mail canceling an event the company had scheduled for later this month.

"It is not as much a fear of flying," said Denny Lynch, a spokesman for Dublin, Ohio-based Wendy's International Inc., which has banned all air travel through this week. "Business people are looking at the practicality of flying in today's environment: reduced schedules, significant delays at airports."