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Airlines facing tough times after Sept. 11

| Sunday, Dec. 30, 2001

Vaughn Gilbert has flown twice since Sept. 11 and plans to vacation in Europe next spring.

U.S. Rep. Mike Doyle, a Swissvale Democrat, has returned to the airways more often recently.

"I wanted people to know it was safe to travel in airplanes again," Doyle said.

US Airways and other carriers could use a lot more people like Gilbert, 48, of Elizabeth Township and the congressman.

The tragedies of Sept. 11 — along with the nation's economic recession — drained 33 percent of the passengers from nation's airlines when compared to a year earlier. The Air Transport Association, which crunches data from the major carriers, said October traffic dropped 23 percent.

And airlines are not out of the woods yet. November passenger traffic at US Airways, for instance, was still down 25 percent from a year ago.

"I flew to Los Angeles a couple of weeks after Sept. 11, and the plane was almost empty," said attorney Dennis Unkovic, 53, of McCandless, who specializes in commercial transactions.

After the terrorist attacks, US Airways' Chairman Stephen Wolf said the airline faced "challenges of an unimaginable magnitude." It and other major carriers could lose more than $6 billion this year.

After a more than three-week shut-down, Reagan Washington National Airport — where US Airways holds about half the lucrative shuttle traffic — did not reopen until Oct. 4. And airlines there are still hobbling along at roughly half-capacity.

To build traffic and revenue, Wolf wants more regional jets in order to feed more flyers from small markets to US Airways' mainl routes. The smaller, regional jets fill a high percentage of their seats, yet fly faster than the propeller planes they would replace.

But the company and its pilots union are still at odds over pay and job security.

Airlines have responded to the lull in traffic by discounting fares. Latest figures show the 15 largest airlines dropped average airfares by more than 19 percent in October.

While a boon to passengers, lower air fares can hurt US Airways' revenue. The Arlington, Va.-based carrier also cut its flight schedule by 23 percent to match the drop in travel — which reduced operating costs but also cut revenue.

Since Sept. 11, the company has been hoarding its cash. A cushion of $1.5 billion on Sept. 1 dwindled to $1 billion by month-end. US Airways had to mortgage aircraft in late November to fetch $404 million more.

Whether discounts draw enough paying passengers into the sky will depend on attitudes like that of Bob Medonis, a local attorney who plans to fly to Philadelphia in about a month.

Even if they weren't scared off by Sept. 11, passengers must now be patient. Extra airport security — from I.D. checks to bag and body searches — adds up to two hours to each leg of a trip. Some travelers will stay at home , while others will adjust.

"Westinghouse (Electric Co.) for years has tried to eliminate unnecessary travel," said Gilbert, the Monroeville company's spokesman. "But we provide service and refueling for nuclear power plants throughout the world, and our business requires us to travel."

Westinghouse's 9,000 workers, including 3,000 in this region, log at least 22,000 flying miles a year. And that globe-trotting didn't abate much after Sept. 11, said Gilbert.

"I'm not going to let this determine how I live my life," Gilbert said during a telephone interview on a flight from St. Louis

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