Airline industry impatient with Fed's lack of security plans

DALLAS -- As congressional negotiators work on a plan to improve security at the nation's airports, people who follow the airline business are concerned about the industry's ability to win back fliers who are staying home out of fear.

Air travel, which dropped sharply after the Sept. 11 terrorist hijackings and attacks, is slowly recovering as some travelers have gotten over their initial anxiety about flying.

But industry observers say a bigger rebound has been delayed by the time Washington has spent debating how to reform the security system. They also question whether that reform will be enough to restore public confidence in flying.

Since the attacks, major carriers have reinforced cockpit doors on their planes and armed National Guard troops are stationed in airports.

That doesn't satisfy Robert Crandall, the former chairman of American Airlines.

"Much of what has been done since Sept. 11 is for show and not for substance," Crandall said.

He said his biggest disappointment is that it has taken so long for the federal government to assume responsibility for security -- or even devise a complete security plan.

"That is both disgraceful and ridiculous," said Crandall, an influential industry figure whose innovations included super-saver fares and the widely copied frequent-flier program.

Crandall and others expected quick action from Congress after Sept. 11, but then a stalemate developed over the question of who should hire airport screeners.

On Oct. 11, the Democratic-led Senate voted 100-0 to require that the screeners be federal employees. Last week, the Republican-controlled House voted 286-139 for a bill that would require only supervisors to be government employees.

Negotiators for both houses must now come up with a compromise plan; they met on Wednesday and are to meet again on Tuesday. Congressional negotiators say they are hoping to get a bill to President Bush by Thanksgiving, despite the major differences to be worked out.

Under the current, much-criticized system, airlines contract out screening to private companies, who tend to pay low wages with few benefits to workers who are poorly trained and don't stay in their jobs very long.

The airlines would like to see aviation security federalized because it would eliminate their liability when there are security lapses.

Some observers worry that a continuation of the current system will only hurt the industry further.

To Jim Hall, former chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board, the fighting in Congress misses the point. He said the debate should move from the employment status of screeners to "what caused the problem in the first place."

Hall, a Democrat who served on a Clinton administration aviation-safety commission, recommended more screening of baggage, security checkpoints at every gate, eliminating retail areas beyond the security points, and closer monitoring of food and other vendors with access to airplanes.

Hall said airlines have resisted improvements and the government hasn't pushed hard enough for changes, either.

"The airlines have not been helpful because they consistently don't want any kind of additional fee placed on airline tickets," said Hall, who favors a "user fee" to finance security improvements, much as motorists pay gasoline taxes to pay for highway projects.