Tragedy didn't start airline woes

Jules Witcover

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WASHINGTON-- When the major airlines' chief executives appealed to Congress this week for a $17.5 billion bailout, they also threw in a request that the federal government take over the critical task of screening passengers before flight boarding.

It's an idea that has considerable support as well among union leaders who deplore the low wages and inadequate training of the screeners. Currently, most do the job for minimum wage or slightly above, undergo only a fraction of the job preparation experts say they need and often work well over the 30-minute shift before a break these experts say should be the limit for efficiency.

The basic reason, according to Tom Balanoff, a vice president of the Service Employees International Union that represents airline workers, is that the airlines, with their eyes on the bottom line of profitability, always take the lowest bid of companies that provide the screeners.

Only a small proportion of airport screeners is represented by organized labor insisting on higher pay and standards. Mr. Balanoff's union has only 2,000 as members among the 18,000 doing the job at American airports. So the airlines can get away with paying the rest fast-food wages, even when tests of the effectiveness of screeners demonstrate a clear correlation between salary and training and prohibited items intercepted.

In the competitive environment that exists, Mr. Balanoff says, the airlines are driven to cut costs wherever they can, and airport security is an easy target. "People want to travel across the country for $100 and get there quickly," he says.

A member of the House Aviation Subcommittee, Democratic Rep. Elijah E. Cummings of Maryland, says: "When we talk about safety, it oftentimes takes a back seat where expense is involved." Testifying airline executives, Mr. Cummings says, "pretty much felt they would like the federal government to take it [the security function] off their hands."

The Bush administration, while considering federalization, is focused on getting $5 billion to the airlines to prop them up in the wake of the severe losses incurred since the World Trade Center and Pentagon skyjack attacks. Some members of Congress, however, have made clear they don't want to bail them out for bad management that had put them in financial trouble long before those attacks.

Another House Aviation Subcommittee member, Democratic Rep. Peter A. DeFazio of Oregon, charges the executives with "extraordinary arrogance, with their hands out trying to get billions with no strings attached."

He proposes a "security surcharge" of $3 a ticket to pay for improved security screening and sky marshals, but the chairman of Alaska Airlines, John Kelly, suggested that travelers wouldn't pay it.

"The people do not respond to anything other than the total price," he told an incredulous Mr. DeFazio.

The huge bonuses that airline executives enjoy while skimping on decent salaries and training for airport screeners also concern some in Congress. The executives told the committee that their bonuses are based on performance, and they argued that with the airlines faring so dismally, they won't be so lucrative now -- a convenient dodge. Mr. Cummings says protecting airline workers facing job loss should come first.

David Swierenga, chief economist for the Air Transport Association, the airlines' organization, says the federal government should take over airport security because the carriers' security system never was designed to cope with terrorists, just airplane hijackers -- a nice distinction. The screening system is geared to discovering lethal weapons, he says, not to making judgment calls about passengers who might be terrorists.

In that limited function, he insists, the airlines have "been eminently successful." He says that under Federal Aviation Administration regulations, knives with blades less than 4 inches long have been allowed, so that "there has been no breakdown in the screening process for baggage. The breakdown has been in the screening of people." This distinction argues, at a minimum, for higher pay and longer training for airport screeners, as well as tougher FAA rules.

The country unquestionably needs a financially healthy air transport system, and government has a justifiable role in helping to ensure it. At the same time, the airlines should not be permitted to use a national tragedy as a cover for a federal bailout of a financial mess that predated that tragedy.

Jules Witcover writes from The Sun's Washington bureau.
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