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Bailout the airlines but insist on changes in attitude



Published: Mon, September 24, 2001 @ 12:00 a.m.



As the nation's airlines line up for a share of the $15 billion bail-out promised by the president, it must not be forgotten that for years America's commercial aviation industry has fought strenuously against mandated security measures. All that must change. Between industry lobbying and Federal Aviation Administration inaction -- in part because of the agency's hopeless bureaucracy and in part because of its coziness with the airlines -- American passengers have not had the protection that could and should have been theirs.

The bill provides $5 billion in direct aid, the amount airlines said they would lose by the end of the month as a result of the government-ordered grounding of flights following the terrorist hijackings of four jetliners, and the sharp drop in business since service was restored.

It also offers $10 billion in loan guarantees over nine months to airlines that face fewer customers, sharp increases in insurance premiums and rising costs for security. It contains a provision that the executives of airlines that receive loans have their salaries frozen at a maximum $300,000 for two years. We support emergency funding for U.S. aviation -- the need for transportation will ultimately be restored -- but Congress must insist on unbreakable safety rules for passengers and flight crews.

Ridge's challenge: Given the FAA's virtual inability to move forward in any area, it's also time to reconsider the agency's role in airline safety. Another federal organization -- the U.S. Coast Guard has been suggested -- should be assigned responsibility for keeping Americans safe in the air. This will be one of Gov. Tom Ridge's first challenges as he takes on the new Office of Homeland Security.

Although Israel has long been a target of terrorists, the security measures of its national airline, El Al -- armed guards at the airport, commandos on each flight, passenger and baggage searches -- have made it immune from hijackings. But the United States has no national airline, and the funding for baggage checks and passenger security has come from corporations that have regarded their bottom line as pre-eminent.

The nation's transportation industry should be protected, but so should those who avail themselves of that industry's services. As the airlines take the taxpayers' bucks, they cannot be allowed to pass the buck on safety.




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