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Insurance companies, customers grappling with Sept. 11 fallout

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In the summer before Sept.11, David Udow and his partners quietly shopped around for insurance rates for their new outdoor adventure company ZipTrek Ecotours.

Time and again they were assured that insurance coverage would be "no problem" and early indications pointed to rates that would fall in line with their preliminary budget.

But on Sept. 11 the insurance world suffered a catastrophic event, shouldering an estimated cost somewhere between $40 to $70 billion US – all the bills have yet to come in.

And while zipping through trees between Whistler and Blackcomb has nothing to do with terrorists, the repercussions of Sept. 11 reverberated back to Udow and his partners.

When the time came to get insurance for their fledgling company, the rates were five times higher than they had been in August 2001.

"You’d fall off your chair if I told you how much it was," he said but he would not disclose the actual sum.

In fact it was so high that Udow said the company almost didn’t make it off the ground.

"It was borderline," he sighed.

In fact, they had a hard time even getting the coverage at all.

"We had a very difficult time getting insurance as an activity that is fairly unknown.... The (insurance) companies didn’t know how to rate us," he said.

But Udow’s story is just a sign of the times as insurance companies try to recoup some of their losses from the terrorist attacks.

"What we’ve gone to is a hard market," said Donald Cochrane, insurance broker at Sea to Sky Insurance Services.

"That means the insurance companies are increasing rates and are very selective about the business they’re taking on."

Whistler Bungee co-owner Michael Krieger said there were a few factors working in their favour that allowed them to retain third party liability this year despite the tough insurance market.

He says a good 15-year reputation and an accident-free history, as well as a few connections, were very helpful in getting the coverage.

He did not have a quote prior to Sept. 11 but estimates his rates are double what they would have been one year ago.

"Sure, it’s upsetting.... It’s disappointing," he said.

"(But) if you want to play you gotta pay."

In reality it’s the customers that are paying for the high insurance rates that companies are currently paying out.

"Fundamentally it gets passed on to the customer as part of the price of the activity," said Udow.

"That’s about the only way to do it."

Some of the customers who are feeling it the most are those connected to the aviation industry, which suffered a severe blow when the four hijacked planes crashed.

Heli-ski tour operators in Whistler are coping with huge jumps in their insurance rates.

"Most heli-skiing companies have had their rates raised 50 per cent," said Ken Hardy, owner of Whistler Heli-Skiing, who leases five helicopters for his 22-year-old business.

"Everything gets reflected back to the final user."

At Whistler Heli-Skiing customers are paying up to roughly $70 per head more than they were paying two years ago.

The increase comes from a long awaited insurance adjustment in the industry in 2000, which raised the rates, and then the jump in costs from Sept. 11.

Hardy admits that a $100 increase per head more accurately reflects the costs of the rates but it’s just too expensive for the customers to support.

All of the companies in the heli-ski business are facing the same rates and he is pessimistic the rates will drop anytime soon.

In this kind of hard market, the brunt of rising insurance costs is not limited to outdoor recreation activities like heli-skiing and bungee jumping. Cochrane said homeowners insurance is going up in the vicinity of five to 10 per cent. Business policies are going up anywhere between 10 and 25 per cent.

As for life insurance, there has been a general tightening up in that sector as well. Insurance companies are now giving ratings for people travelling to certain places in the world.

"If you travel to Saudi most companies won’t even give you life insurance so that’s something that has developed since 9/11," said Tom Christy, a broker with Christy Insurance Agencies.

"I guess 9/11 was a wake up call and the underwriters realized that some countries are safer than others and in some there’s unrest and they better adjust their rates accordingly."

Some analysts say the terrorist attacks came at one of the worst times in the insurance world.

Cochrane pointed to various factors at the time which were already hardening the market. Among other things, litigation costs had gone up, bodily injury claims were on the rise and auto accidents had increased in costs.

In addition, claims inflation had been increasing five per cent annually.

All these factors were also exacerbated by the soft market prices in the decade prior to 2001.

"The market was starting to harden prior to that and that was the thing that tipped the scale," said Cochrane.

He emphasizes the catastrophic consequences of Sept. 11 on the insurance world.

"They’ve had global catastrophes before such as Hurricane Andrew or the Quebec ice storms of the floods in the UK a couple of years ago," he said.

But Sept. 11 was on another scale altogether.

Hurricane Andrew in 1992, the largest payout before the terrorist attacks, cost insurance companies almost $20 billion US.

And although the bills are still coming in for Sept. 11, it is estimated to cost about three times as much as Hurricane Andrew.

Cochrane said the ramifications are being felt everywhere.

"Insurance is a global market so when you have a catastrophe in one place it has an effect elsewhere," he said.

For businessmen like Udow, current insurance rates could be prohibitive for other entrepreneurs wanting to start up a business.

With the ZipTrek business taking off Udow is prepared to weather the storm for the time being, keeping a close eye on his insurance costs and hoping that when it comes time to renew there will be some more competitive quotes.