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Even before Sept. 11, the airline industry was in trouble. The weak economy was cutting sharply into business travel, whose high-margin tickets account for nearly 80% of industry profits. Costs were skyrocketing, pushed by labor contracts negotiated in flush times. And now travelers, worried about security and wary of delays and hassles at airports, are looking for any excuse not to fly. Upshot: airlines have cut flights 20% from pre-Sept. 11 levels, yet planes still flying are at just 65% of capacity, compared with an estimated 73% before the terror attacks.
Throughout the airline industry these days, red ink is pouring the way champagne once did in first class. United is leading the way down, losing $15 million a day and warning last month it would "perish" without a cash infusion. Even with the government's $15 billion post-Sept. 11 bailout, industry watchers are predicting a shakeout that could ground some big carriers permanently. "It's a horrible picture," says ABN AMRO airline analyst Ray Neidl. "And the fourth quarter will be uglier than the third."
When things go bad at this time of year, they go very bad. Airlines depend on the holidays, slogging through cheerless Octobers, waiting for the full planes, and often full fares, of Thanksgiving and Christmas. But this season, Americans are more reluctant to fly than at any time in recent memory. Would-be flyers are worried not only about security, delays and possible strandings; some also wonder whether the airline they've paid for a Christmas ticket will be in business when it comes time to depart. Here are some of the questions travelers are asking:
Have New Security Measures Made It Safer to Fly?
As we're constantly reminded, statistically, the drive to the airport is more dangerous than the flight, even when the hijackings of Sept. 11 are factored into the odds. Travel professionals say they have clients who don't want to fly, but even more who are worried about being stranded far from home if the air-traffic system shuts down for days, as it did after Sept. 11. And others don't want to endure long lines at check-in and security.
To be sure, security has improved. Last week the airlines finished installing bars on cockpit doors to keep passengers from assaulting the pilots, as the hijackers did. And President Bush announced last week a 25% increase in National Guard troops, to a total of 9,000, who will be stationed at the country's 420 airports.
But at some of the most critical points in the system, surprisingly little has changed. The flying public is particularly eager to for an upgrade in airport security workers, the folks still failing to spot knives and guns in carry-on bags. "Millions of Americans fly, and we protect them with minimum-wage rent-a-cops," says Association of Flight Attendants spokesman Jeff Zack, who argues that airport security workers should be federal employees. Congress continues to bicker over whether such workers should be government workers or instead be employed as private contractors subject to strict federal supervision. The Senate unanimously called for federalizing the security workers. But the House is balking, with majority leader Dick Armey injecting a nakedly political objection: that federal workers probably would become union members and vote for Democrats.
Congressional squabbles have also slowed progress on another key issue: international-flight manifests. Most airlines transmit passenger lists to U.S. Customs as flights take off, so they can be checked against databases at 24 federal agencies, including the FBI and the INS, and compared with terrorist watch lists. But Saudi Air--where most of the Sept. 11 hijackers came from--has resisted. Attempts to require manifests as a condition of landing in the U.S. have stalled on procedural grounds. Congressional backers say they will keep trying.
Bag checks have also been hotly debated. The rule on most international flights is that every bag is checked for bombs. On U.S. domestic flights, carry-on is X-rayed, but checked luggage generally is not. The industry has resisted mandatory checks, arguing that there is a shortage of machines, the checks are too slow, and they register too many false positives. The FAA planned to phase in a check-all-bags requirement starting in 2009, but after the Sept. 11 attacks, it said it might move that up to 2004.