The day air-travel innocence died

More flight delays, restrictions likely in store after armed hijackings

By Dave Hirschman

Cox News Service

ATLANTA — Heightened security at U.S. airports could mean fewer flights, longer waits and higher prices, industry experts said in the wake of the terrorist hijackings that turned four airliners into missiles.

"Air travel is no longer going to be for the masses," said Michael Boyd, an aviation consultant. "It’s going to become far more restricted. No airplane is going to be allowed to leave the gate without being swept from nose to tail — and no one who comes near a commercial airliner is going to be allowed to carry so much as a pocket knife."

Precisely what changes are made in security procedures remains to be seen, but no one expects a return to normal anytime soon. Some predict sweeping reforms in the way airlines and airports handle baggage, passenger screening and cockpit security.

"There is going to have to be a balance struck between security of air travel and the public’s demand to travel," said Stuart Klaskin, a consultant with Klaskin Kushner &Co. "Events like this become something of a wake-up call and pave the way for serious changes in security."

Tuesday’s disaster turned a routine morning for the airline industry into a nightmare. One minute, hundreds of planes were in the air, the next the entire U.S. airline fleet was ordered to the ground. Managers and passengers alike were left to deal with a shutdown of unprecedented scope and unknown duration — not to mention the horror of four crashes in one morning.

Like the targets of the attacks, the airlines involved are symbols of America’s global prowess. American and United are the No. 1 and 2 carriers by revenue. The No. 3 U.S. carrier, Atlanta-based Delta, issued a statement Tuesday morning saying all its planes were accounted for.

Chief Executive Leo Mullin was leading an executive team at an emergency center in Atlanta. The team will determine how to effect any new security measures and manage the airline’s restart when federal officials allow flights to resume.

"It’s going to be difficult to crystal ball until the (government) provides the industry with some guidelines on any changes that would occur," Delta spokesman Todd Clay said. "I think it would be unfair to make any judgments as to how this will change air travel."

Mullin and Joe Leonard, his counterpart at AirTran Airways, spoke by phone to discuss security at Hartsfield International Airport, where both operate hubs, an AirTran spokesman said.

Security improvements could boost travel and shipping costs, said Ned Laird, of the Air Cargo Management Group in Seattle.

"The cost of air travel and shipping are bound to go up to pay for that added security," he said, "and the burden is going to fall on passengers and shippers. That much is certain."

U.S. air travelers should be prepared to see armed guards with automatic weapons in airport terminals along with bomb-sniffing dogs and X-ray machines for luggage, said Theodore Scherck of the Colography Group, an Atlanta transportation consulting firm. "Security is going to get a lot tighter for everyone," Scherck said. "The trick is pulling it off without crippling the economy."

Pilots say the industry should consider armored door systems or a double-door system with one door always locked. Cockpit doors are now thin to allow for easy emergency exit and cut weight.

Besides altering the way airlines operate, the disaster could worsen a financial slump for the industry and weaken workers’ job security. Most major carriers have lost money in 2001 amid slackening demand for travel.

"American and United will probably suffer the worst, but every airline is going to be impacted," said John Wensveen, professor of airline management at Embry Riddle Aeronautical University. "Millions and millions of dollars will be lost."

Major gateways such as Hartsfield could see the flights reduced 30 percent because of more elaborate procedures when operations resume, consultant Boyd said, with serious implications for airlines. Discount carriers like AirTran and Southwest, for instance, rely on quick turnarounds on the ground to keep planes airborne as much as possible.

"No airline will be able to do 15-minute turns anymore," Boyd said. "Things have permanently changed."

Air cargo carriers such as United Parcel Service and FedEx are also likely to face heightened security measures, which could slow urgent package shipments and further hurt commerce.

"Cargo carriers have always been exempt from some of the rules that govern passenger airlines, but that could change," said David Harris, editor of Cargo Facts, an industry newsletter.

In addition to the costs of a shutdown and added security, airlines face an uncertain reaction by travelers. That could also have ramifications for hotels, cruise lines and major destinations such as Disney World and Universal Studios, both of which closed Tuesday as a safety precaution.

Dawn Salomone, agency manager of AAA Travel in Marietta, Ga., said her office was quiet Tuesday afternoon, with few calls for either cancellations or new bookings.

"I think people want to pretty much stick close to home right now," she said. "People are watching TV. They are shocked. It’s very hard to tell what’s going to happen."

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