Airlines need taxpayer support

Congress and the president have committed themselves to support a multi-billion-dollar bailout for the nation’s airlines, and Americans should support at least the principle of the plan. Federal money is essential if airlines are to survive the costs of needed security improvements.

The terrorist attacks Sept. 11 were watershed events for U.S. airlines. Every previous hijacking pales when compared to the destructive power of a plane turned into a self-propelled bomb. The mere fact that the hijackers who perpetrated these crimes were able to board their planes exposes the inadequacy of airport security measures and guarantees that the days of arriving 45 minutes before one’s flight and rushing to the gate are over. An underpaid guard’s half-glance at a briefly waved driver’s license can hardly be considered tight security any more than metal detectors that have within the last week allowed airline employees testing them to pass through with weapons.

Yet the costs of hiring more guards, providing them better training and higher salaries, installing more checkpoints, changing aircraft designs and using more sophisticated weapons-detection technology will sound the death knell for companies already facing, as one executive put it, “imminent bankruptcy.” Minnesota’s own Northwest reports it is losing $25 million each day due to increased security costs and fewer passengers.

As the shock of last week’s attacks wears off, Americans will increasingly be inclined to question spending billions of dollars to bail out private industry. But the costs of increased airport security will be paid by consumer taxpayers regardless of where they are imposed. Government inaction will only shift the burden to airlines and produce either bankruptcy or overwhelmingly higher ticket and shipping prices, which will in turn increase the cost of everything transported by air – mail and packages, relatives and business documents, to name a few. We could, of course, simply tell airlines to forego enhanced security, in which case every passenger would pay the price as an increased risk of being hijacked.

Government aid, administered properly, could solve security problems and minimize taxpayer cost. Any money given to airlines should be accompanied by legislation or regulations directing how it should be spent, discouraging the misappropriations that have plagued other government direct-aid programs. At the same time, airlines and their private contractors should have discretion when implementing these plans in their own facilities, preserving the private sector’s competitive incentive to find innovative solutions. Government inspectors should, of course, zealously ensure that these innovations are not simply cutting corners but in fact represent better ways of solving a perpetual problem.

The cheap, convenient air travel Americans have come to expect was bought at the price of decreased security. And as last week’s attacks showed us, that’s a price we can no longer afford to pay.