'The whole nature of airline travel will change'

By Thomas Wilson
STAR STAFF
twilson@starhq.com  
  
   The barriers have been removed.
   A 300-foot boundary that blocked vehicle traffic from coming near the terminal of Tri-Cities Regional Airport (TCRA) were removed months ago, according to the Federal Aviation Administration directive.
   National Guard troops stationed at airport passenger gates have departed. Incoming vehicles, their drivers and their contents are no longer checked by Tennessee Valley Authority police or airport security guards.
   And while air travel has returned, the horrific events of Sept. 11 have not brought air passengers back to fly the friendly skies as quickly as expected.
   "We've noticed traffic has not picked up quite as fast as we thought it would," said John Hanlin, TCRA executive director.
   "We did okay through the winter and the spring, but we were anticipating as we got toward the end of the summer or going into the fall, passengers would be back about where they were ... if not last year then the year before's numbers," he said.
   The nature of the attacks caused catastrophic loss of human life. From an economic standpoint, the attacks -- and their connotations -- irreparably damaged the airline industry.
   Terrorists hijacked four commercial aircraft at three U.S. airports on the morning of Sept. 11.
   American Airlines Flight 11 was crashed into the north tower of the World Trade Center at approximately 8:45 a.m. Moments later, United Airlines Flight 175 struck the South Tower of the World Trade Center.
   American Airlines Flight 77 later crashed into the Pentagon while United Airlines Flight 93 crashed in field near Somerset, Penn. Federal authorities investigating that crash found a small group of passengers confronted the hijackers and ultimately forced the aircraft down before it struck another target.
   Airports were closed and all flights were grounded and military aircraft patrolled major cities as the U.S. government scrambled to secure the skies.
   The U.S. Department of Transportation's Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) announced that it is restores general aviation access to airspace in 30 major metropolitan areas in December.
   The FAA required airports to hire additional security personnel once National Guard troops pulled out of monitoring airport check-ins earlier this year.
   "The lens you have to look at and things you have to weigh are just how much security are people willing to put up with," Hanlin remarked. "Then, how much security can you have right away that won't just bog the system down where it won't operate period."
   Congress enacted the Aviation and Transportation Security Act (ATSA), in November which directed the FAA's new airplane security both immediately and in the long-term.
   As at most airports around the nation, the newly created Transportation Security Administration (TSA) took over the airline security contracts previously operated by private security firms.
   Established as part of the FAA under the U.S. Department of Transportation, the TSA is in the process of making airport security screeners federal employees, Hanlin said.
   The Airport was notified in May that the FAA had removed the federally mandated restrictions on parking at smaller airports that were put in place after September 11.
   Car inspections were also no longer required to enter the short-term parking lot. A 300-foot boundary that prohibited vehicles from coming near airport terminals was also lifted in May.
   The requirements are still in place at larger U.S. airports.
   Hanlin said airports were uncertain as to how long the rigid airport security measures taken after Sept. 11.
   "You don't want to make the security restrictions so onerous that you choke off the whole industry," said Hanlin. "If you don't have any qualifications that is going to be used in something you can't just run around and clamp the lid down on everybody.
   "You've got the airlines, half is business and half is leisure or discretionary. Sixty percent of their total revenues are business related."
   The TCRA's second quarter passenger numbers this year continued to slide, but have been better than the national average of airline passengers since Sept. 11.
   Total passenger traffic was down 6.9 percent from second quarter 2001, with a total decline of 10.2 percent year-to-date, according to TCRA passenger reports. The Airport recorded a dip of 7.4 percent in total passenger traffic for May and an 8.6 percent decrease in June.
   "More than one-half of our traffic is business travel," said Hanlin. "We estimate anywhere around 60 percent or a little bit more. So as the economy stays down locally and nationally, we notice a softening in that particular market.
   "So while we are a little more susceptible to downturns in the economy, we seem to have beat the averages a little bit."
   The presence of regional carriers to transport Tri-Cities travelers to hub destinations such as Atlanta and Pittsburgh had averted the brutal economic impact suffered by many airports dependent on the major airlines.
   "That puts us in a little better position than some other airports that are more depending on name air carriers," said Hanlin.
   "We are already being served by the more economical carriers. Operating for 32 to 66 passengers. Their labor costs are lower so they unit costs for feeding passengers into a hub is actually very competitive."
   Regional airlines operating at TCRA as wholly-owned subsidiaries or contracted carriers include ASA/Comair, Atlantic Coast Airlines US Airways carriers Allegheny, and Piedmont, Northwest Airlink, and American Eagle.
   Just as the nation's largest airlines realized that some business travelers were not coming back after the terrorist attacks, Hanlin the even overall economic conditions coupled with the so-called "hassle effect" of flying had combined to slow down the recovery of the airline industry.
   "The government subsidies authorized after 9-11 helped, but they fact that US Air is filing chapter 11 and United (Airlines) is considering filing chapter 11, meant that took the sting out of it, not solve the problem," said Hanlin.
   "What we're looking at is, over the next two years, the whole nature of airline travel will change," said Hanlin.
   He said changes in how airlines established fares for business and discretionary passengers and methods of connecting passengers from regional airports to airport "hubs" were among the radical changes facing the airline industry in the future.
   "Airlines are losing money hand over fist and they just cannot continue to cruise along like they have been and come back," he said. "That's probably the hardest thing for the government to do now. They are trying find out how many liberties the American public is willing to give up."