President Bush's proposals to safeguard the skies - and help US airlines fill more than a paltry 40 percent of their seats - are an extraordinary high-level gambit to restore public confidence in air travel.
Mr. Bush's $3 billion plan to improve security, which he outlined yesterday in Chicago, includes stronger cockpit doors and putting many more federal air marshals aboard flights. He is also expanding the federal role in airport security - a duty long left to individual airlines. Still, the measures stop short of more-controversial ideas, such as arming pilots with lethal or nonlethal weapons.
That the president himself flew to O'Hare International Airport to unveil his plan underscores just how important the aviation industry is to the nation. Since the Sept. 11 hijackings that shredded America's blanket of security, air travel has plummeted, carriers have laid off more than 100,000 workers, and the industry's woes have cascaded into other sectors of the economy.
Early assessments of Bush's plan are that every little bit helps. Whether his proposed safety measures will reassure the flying public - and save the air industry from financial ruin - should become apparent in coming weeks.
"Perception is 90 percent of it," says Richard Gritta, an aviation expert at the University of Portland in Oregon. "If people perceive they're safe, that's the important thing [to get them to resume flying]."
To that end, most federal officeholders are remiss, says Clint Oster, an aviation expert at Indiana University in Bloomington. The fact that Reagan National Airport in Washington remains closed - and that few federal officeholders are flying these days - is hardly confidence-inspiring, he says. "We really haven't seen much in the way of demonstration of faith in the air system by [federal officials] flying on it."
Bush's proposals follow a host of security changes already ordered by the Federal Aviation Administration. Curbside checking of luggage is no longer allowed, nonticketed passengers can't proceed past security points, and everything from safety razors to nail clippers are banned.
Those measures, though, have so far not brought many people back to the skies.
Some of Bush's proposals can be implemented quickly by the FAA. Others will have to go a slower route through Congress.
The president has clearly fastened on those measures that enjoy a wide base of support among lawmakers and security experts: Make cockpit doors more secure, improve luggage-scanning equipment, put more federal air marshals on commercial planes.
More dramatically, the president has decided to partially federalize airport security. The government will buy and maintain equipment, do background checks on all security workers, and supervise screening of passengers and baggage. Uniformed federal personnel will work alongside nonfederal employees.
Until now, US airlines have always been responsible for - and assumed the cost of - safeguarding airports.
In most other countries, that job falls to the national government. US air carriers will be watching closely to see how much of the security tab the government will pick up. Shortage of funding has long been an impediment to more-stringent measures.
Allowing pilots to carry firearms, an idea put forward this week by the Air Line Pilots Association, is not part of Bush's plan. (It also received a lukewarm reception in Congress.)
Michael Wascom of the Air Transport Association, which represents most major airlines, is similarly hesitant to introduce guns to the cockpit. "Let pilots be pilots. Let law enforcement be law enforcement," he says. "If what we're looking for is the introduction of a law-enforcement tool into an aircraft, then the sky-marshal program offers the best opportunity."
If the pilots won't have guns, there could still be plenty of firearms at airports.
The president has urged the governors of all 50 states to call up National Guard forces to augment safety at all the nation's airports until the new measures are fully in place, in about six months.
As Americans assess the safety of air travel in coming weeks, they are likely to carefully weigh the options put forward by the president, Congress, and the FAA.
Mindful of that, airline executives and some politicians are going out of their way to convince people that planes are already safe. Former President Bill Clinton is zigzagging the country on commercial jets this week, and Norman Mineta, secretary of Transportation, flew a commercial carrier yesterday to Chicago to make the announcement with Bush.
"The real test will be at Thanksgiving," says David Stempler of the Air Travelers Association in Washington. "Usually, the airlines set the boarding records for the year on the Wednesday before Thanksgiving, and break those records on the Sunday afterward. We'll see what that looks like."