Are Airlines Ready for Thanksgiving?

While security is much tighter than ever, the industry needs to do a lot more to ensure that this high-traffic period is safe

By David Shook

While many people remain nervous about flying in the wake of September 11, enough travelers are plucking up their courage to make Thanksgiving 2001 a test of how much the air-travel industry has learned.

Airlines report a steady increase in the number of passengers over the last few weeks. While holiday crowds may well be down this year, air traffic could nevertheless be substantial. So what happens when the holiday rush comes up against new airport-security measures? And will the security be adequate to protect public safety?

Sadly, authorities in the air-travel industry don't seem to be prepared for the Thanksgiving rush, when more than 35 million people traditionally travel by car, bus, train, or jet to destinations more than 100 miles from their homes. Transportation Secretary Norman Mineta recently expressed concern that additional security provisions have been inconsistent, citing the passenger in New Orleans who accidentally boarded a plane wearing a gun. "This is intolerable," Mineta said about the incident, which occurred on a Southwest Airlines flight.


  In response to such occurrences, effective immediately, Federal Aviation Administration security agents will clear travelers from airport terminals and require them to reenter security checkpoints if screening isn't done properly, Mineta says. Also, agents have the authority to delay individual flights.

A good start, but the airlines may need to do more. The safety measures taken since September 11, while adequate for lighter-than-normal airport traffic, will be sorely strained by Thanksgiving. "Right now, the airlines are reconfiguring their routes, daily flights, and frequencies, laying off thousands of people, mothballing aircraft," worries Kevin Mitchell, chairman of the Business Travel Coalition. "Thanksgiving probably looks like next year to them." Try three weeks.

Congress needs to do its part, too. It should pass legislation now that funds additional airport security and allows federal employees either to supervise private airport-baggage screeners or take over the process themselves. While the Senate has already passed a bill that would make screeners government employees, President Bush and the House have objected to the proposed increase in the federal payroll. At a time when Attorney General John Ashcroft continues to issue public warnings about terrorist attacks, congressional gridlock on funding for aviation security is almost a crime in itself.


  Granted, airports now have more security checkpoints. Armed National Guard troops watch over departure decks. And there are more searches of passengers and their baggage, both carry-on and checked. But these are largely done with the aid of computers that randomly select which passengers' luggage is inspected. Result: On many flights, only 10% to 20% of bags bound for a plane's cargo hold are looked over. As one cargo manager at a major airline says: "If you have a full passenger load, there's no way to check everything."

While airlines must cut costs to survive, they must also make security a primary focus. A manual search of all bags that enter an aircraft is a reasonable -- and reachable -- goal. Mineta has requested special agents to supplement the FAA's meager 500-person airport-inspection staff. But he hasn't said how many agents will be added. The number of employees should be tripled or even quadrupled.

On domestic flights, bags are not always matched with passengers, which means a person could check a bag and then not board the aircraft. Planes should be prevented from taking off unless every piece of checked luggage is matched to a boarded passenger.


  Some airlines have begun closing city ticket offices and airport lounges for frequent flyers to save money. Good idea. Such cost-cutting measures could free up money for extra security. Why stop there? Would anybody really mind if airlines quit serving hot meals on three-hour flights? And cutting back on food service would make it easier to secure airplanes before takeoff.

If additional security measures mean more time in line for passengers, so be it. To lessen the waiting time, airlines could limit the number of bags each passenger is allowed to a single item for short-haul trips and two for longer trips. Airports could hire additional security personnel to assist in the screening of passengers and to ensure that only passengers and employees are allowed inside secure airport areas.

Airports insist that security for Thanksgiving travel shouldn't be a new public concern. "We're already at the highest level of security we've ever been at," says Phil Orlandella, a spokesman for Massport, which operates Logan Airport in Boston. The three major airports in New York and New Jersey don't have any special holiday measures, either, says Port Authority spokesman Steve Coleman.


  Airlines say they'll be prepared -- but provide few specifics. Northwest Airlines CEO Richard Anderson has said holiday preparations are part of the reason he's beefing up security staff at hub airports, including Detroit and Minneapolis. Explains Northwest spokeswoman Kathy Peach: "It's the same for us as it would be for a grocery store that opens more registers when crowds are there."

At some airports, she says, Northwest's seasonal workers, such as the crew that de-ices aircraft wings, are being used for security. And airlines have increased their starting wages for security staff by $3 or $4 an hour to attract higher-caliber workers.

Good steps all. But Northwest and Southwest Airlines say their advanced bookings for November are comparable to those of last year. And while Delta reports it has recently been flying at 80% capacity, "our overall concern right now is that travel demand is still down," says Delta spokesperson Cindi Kurczewski. "We're very much focused on managing our costs, limiting our head count, and cutting capacity in order to ensure the survival of the airline."

Point taken. But given the state of high alert across the nation, airlines and airports could be more vocal in demonstrating their preparedness for the Thanksgiving rush. Congress also needs to put politics aside and act quickly to further protect the nation's airline passengers. The industry's long-term survival will also depend on the ability of Washington and the airlines to restore a sense of safety and confidence -- especially for holiday travel.

Shook is a BusinessWeek Online correspondent based in New York

Edited by Douglas Harbrecht

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