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Officials: Airlines ready to stay on orange alert

Trade group chief: Extra security not keeping passengers away

From Beth Lewandowski

A Los Angeles International Airport police officer patrols with his dog during the recent holiday travel period.
A Los Angeles International Airport police officer patrols with his dog during the recent holiday travel period.

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WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Airline industry officials said Thursday they are prepared to maintain security for a heightened alert even if the U.S. terror threat level is lowered.

Last month, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security raised the nation's alert level to orange, the second-highest of five color-coded threat levels, citing concern over possible terrorist attacks. The airlines tightened security measures in response.

"We will comply," said Air Transport Association President Jim May, noting that the airline industry hasn't been told officially if it will remain at orange alert.

Bush administration officials said this week that certain sectors, such as the aviation industry, could be kept on a higher alert while the national threat level is lowered to yellow but that no decisions have been made.

May said U.S. airlines are not experiencing any significant reduction in passenger bookings or curtailed flights because of the tighter security.

Air France, which was forced to cancel three flights in the past two weeks because of U.S. terrorism concerns, also said it is not experiencing a high volume of cancellations.

A spokesman said 10 people had canceled flights between December 23 and 26 due to media reports about security concerns. But since December 26, the airline said it wasn't aware of any cancellations attributed to fears of a terrorist attack.

Air France also reported that its advanced bookings for January are ahead of last year's level.

Air Transport Association's May acknowledged airlines face higher costs for personnel, insurance and equipment associated with countermeasures to handle the elevated threat alert, but he said such costs are incremental.

Airline travelers seem to be getting accustomed to the more stringent security, he said. "Anecdotally ... it seems the public is accepting at this point of the world we live in," he said.

May said airlines and government security officials had developed an "aggressive game plan" to respond to the orange threat level. The security measures taken during the most recent move were similar to those during previous hikes, he said. They include:

• Additional security for ramps, catering and airfield areas

• More personnel posted at airport highway exit lanes

• Closer scrutiny of packages carried on passenger and cargo planes

• Additional scrutiny of documents and passenger manifests

May said that about 10 percent of air cargo is screened physically as a result of a November order from the Transportation Security Administration to beef up inspections.

Before, he said, about 1 percent of cargo was screened. The airline industry relied almost exclusively on the "known shipper" program to authenticate shippers with established and certified security programs.

May said he is "cautiously optimistic" that airlines will rebound from the economic slump they have been in since 2000. In 2003, the airlines reported losses of $5 billion -- down from an $11.3 billion loss in 2002.

Much of the losses are attributed to the high cost of security, according to May.

The federal government applies a $2.50 per-segment tax on all airline tickets, collecting $1.65 billion last year.

May said the airlines have been forced to absorb that cost because they haven't been able to pass additional charges on to passengers unwilling to pay more amid the economic downturn.

The airline industry has been lobbying Capitol Hill for permanent tax relief.

The government stopped collecting the federal security surcharge over the summer, resulting in the first profitable months in several years for some major U.S. airlines.

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