Bush, Congress pledge aid for ailing U.S. airline industry

by Justin Ware

The Bush administration and Congress told the nation’s airline industry Tuesday it can expect quick, multi-billion-dollar relief to help cope with financial woes.

The industry has requested $24 billion in federal aid to combat what airlines have called “inevitable bankruptcy.”

Doug Killian, Northwest Airlines spokesman, would not comment on the specifics but said the talks were going productively.

“I would say they may go to the end of the week,” Killian said of the airline testimonies to Congress.

Major carriers have already announced more than 26,000 layoffs but warn that figure could grow to more than 100,000 in coming weeks.

Northwest Airlines, the nation’s fourth-largest airline, is Minnesota’s third-largest employer, with more than 22,000 employees based in the Twin Cities and Northern Minnesota.

Leo Mullin, chairman of Delta Airlines, said the industry stands to lose $24 billion in revenue by next summer.

The industry’s request consists of $11.2 billion in loans and grants, $7.8 billion for tax relief and $5 billion in direct cash aid.

Rep. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., said Congress could vote on federal allocations as early as this week.

House Minority Leader Dick Gephardt said the airline aid package would be separate from the $40 billion allocated last week to assist New York and Washington, D.C.

Blunt said any aid given to airlines would go toward offsetting the money lost when the government ordered the grounding of all flights last week.

Safety at a cost

During this week’s talks at the Capitol, the airline industry will ask the government to pick up the tab for new Federal Aviation Administration-implemented security restrictions.

Currently airlines are responsible for all security costs inside and around the planes, and with a decrease in passengers and increased-fuel prices, the extra security costs are not welcome.

Northwest Airlines would not comment on how much added security will cost, but Killian said it was a significant chunk of the airline’s budget.

“Since we have the majority of the service, we have the majority of the cost,” he said.

Northwest currently handles 80 percent of Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport traffic.

Jim Welna, the airport’s director of public safety, said the airport is doing its part to increase security.

Officers once working 8-hour shifts are now patrolling the airport in 12-hour shifts; vacations and off days were cancelled.

Welna said the increase in hours has harshly affected University students who work as community service officers at the airport.

“This really impacted them this week, as they missed classes and were unable to finish homework,” Welna said.

But the airport officers aren’t the only ones pulling longer shifts this week, he said. “It’s extraordinary times, and it calls for extraordinary efforts.”

– The Associated Press
contributed to this report


Justin Ware welcomes comments at [email protected]