Airplanes get fuller, airports friendlier

Air traffic remains below pre-attack levels, but airport 'hassle factor' is diminishing.

With briefcases and carry-ons stacked neatly on the chairs next them, auditing executives Mark Stoecklin and Evelina Stoynova are enjoying a late breakfast of croissants and home fries.

A Burger King at Newark International Airport isn't necessarily where they would have chosen to take a leisurely midmorning break. But after arriving two hours early for their flight, as recommended, they made it through check in and security in just five minutes.

"I've been sticking by that two-hour bench mark, but to be perfectly frank, the last three times I've flown I could have been there 30 minutes ahead of time, and that would have been OK," says Mr. Stoecklin. "The lines are not that long anymore."

Six months after terrorist attacks shut down the nation's aviation system for the first time in history, America's skies are becoming friendlier by the day, albeit slowly.

Security is tighter and more efficient. Consumer confidence is inching back up, as airlines lure more people with with cut-rate fares. And the so-called "hassle factor" - the long waits in security lines and awkward, sometimes intrusive searches that marked the early days after the airports reopened - is diminishing.

That's not to say there aren't still problems, from shoe checks to hair-trigger metal detectors. Dozens of people have complained about improper searches, although they represent only a small fraction of the 1.5 million people who take to the skies every day.

Security lines, particularly at peak times, can still snake around terminals, depending on the airport. Then there are the ongoing concerns about continuing gaps in the security system.

Some of them, such as the failure to screen all checked baggage for explosives, security experts consider to be glaring.

On a scale of 1 to 10, David Stempler of the Air Travelers Association says the security has improved only from a one to a three. "It's a very tough transition for both the airlines and the passengers," says Mr. Stempler, who heads the passenger advocacy group in Washington. "We're trying to convert what had become essentially a mass-transit system into a high-security system"

But most Americans appear willing to accept the continuing risks as the system adjusts. As Ms. Stoynova puts it as she waits for her flight: "If you let fear settle in, then you're giving in to the terrorists." A survey released this week by a consortium of airlines and travel agents found that most Americans share that sentiment. Eighty percent said they are now "comfortable" with domestic air travel. Only 16 percent said inadequate security was their "greatest travel concern," well behind the impact of the weak economy.

Confidence levels are up significantly from immediately after the attacks, when air travel plummeted more than 30 percent. That was on top of existing declines due to the recession.

Traffic recovers, part-way

Since Sept. 11, Americans have been slowly but steadily returning to the skies. The Air Transport Association, the major carriers' trade group, says air traffic is still down about 10 percent. But analysts there see a return to pre-9/11 levels by the third quarter of this year.

The FAA is less optimistic. It is not predicting a recovery until well into 2003.

"Recovery is under way, but it is gradual," says Kathleen Argiropoulos of the Airlines Reporting Corp. (ARC) , an arm of the major carriers that coordinates ticket sales. "And it is affected by some Americans' continuing reluctance to travel."

That's because airlines operate on such thin profit margins: Every passenger counts.

The recent survey done by ARC also found that for 15 percent of Americans the hassle of added security is the biggest travel concern. So the airlines are now starting a public-relations push to overcome lingering worries about flying.

They've slashed prices in some cases to pre-1990 levels. They pressured the new Transportation Security Administration (TSA) to allow for expedited security lines for frequent fliers. And they're pushing for a so-called "smart card" that regular customers could apply for that would allow them to pay for their own background check and then undergo less scrutiny at the gate.

Airlines are also going on the airwaves with a public service announcement featuring Captain Jim Lovell, commander of Apollo 13, urging Americans fly again.

Secretary of Transportation Norman Minetta has also made it clear that easing the kinks in the security system is a top priority. The federal government took over security at the airports on Feb. 17 and is in the process of hiring 30,000 new airport screeners. It is also continuing to increase the number of federal air marshals.

Long-term balancing act

For the airlines, restoring efficiency and passenger convenience is key to their recovery, along with the improving economy. But the emphasis on convenience also worries aviation-security experts. They note that the nation's preoccupation with convenience was a major factor behind 9/11 security lapses. It was no secret in aviation that the system had holes, but no one thought the flying public would stand for the increased delays better security would mean.

And they worry that the memory of 9/11 may fade as the nation gets back to normal. "We have got to continue to improve security and shorten the time to do it," says Stempler. "But we also can't forget why it's important ... it does take time. It's a balancing act."

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