Amid growing signs of an impending financial crisis in the airline industry, the White House said it would hold urgent talks next week with executives at air carriers hit by Tuesday's hijack attacks. But the Bush administration stopped short of backing a multibillion-dollar plan to shore up their finances.
White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said on Saturday that President Bush was "concerned" about the financial problems facing commercial carriers in the wake of the deadly attacks, which have undercut demand for air travel and could saddle airlines with the massive cost of tightening security.
Financial experts have offered staggering estimates of airline losses. UBS Warburg estimated the U.S. airline industry will take a $2.1 billion hit, leading to the largest loss ever in the industry — $4.4 billion, adding there would be residual impact in 2002 and forecast a $400 million loss for the industry in 2002.
The International Air Transport Association (IATA) had an even more somber outlook. The body whose member carriers include all major airlines said that, worldwide, the industry could be facing losses of up to $10 billion.
In response, aides said Transportation Secretary Norman Mineta planned to meet with airline executives early next week. An administration official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said Mineta and the executives would discuss the industry's financial woes as well as "a full range of options from which to act."
Separately, James Hoffa, president of the largest union of transportation workers in North America, has requested a meeting with Bush to "ensure the stability of the nation's air transportation system," the Teamsters said in a statement on Saturday.
The White House and Congress are under increasing pressure to aid airlines that have suffered losses due to airport closures and the fall-off in demand stemming from Tuesday's terror attacks and the weakened U.S. economy.
On Heels of Major Cutbacks
Earlier on Saturday, Continental Airlines, the nation's fifth largest carrier, said it would reduce its long-term flight schedule by about 20 percent and would be forced to lay off about 12,000 employees.
Northwest Airlines Corp., the world's fourth largest commercial carrier, later said it would cut its systemwide flight schedule by 20 percent by Oct. 1 and would also review its overall staffing needs.
Airline industry executives have told members of Congress they may lose $10 billion to $12 billion this year -- their biggest losses in history.
``The airlines were facing serious problems before these incidents and now they're facing problems not of their own making. So we're obviously pretty sympathetic to that and looking at it very closely,'' White House spokeswoman Claire Buchan told Reuters.
Several top-ranking lawmakers in the House of Representatives are pressing for passage of legislation authorizing $2.5 billion in grants and $12.5 billion in loan guarantees to aid all U.S. airlines that have sustained losses, not just AMR Corp.'s American Airlines and UAL Corp.'s United Airlines, whose aircraft were hijacked in this week's attacks.
So far the White House has balked at endorsing the aid package, which supporters say would help mitigate the industry's losses and send a signal to financial markets reopening next week that Congress would try to cushion the economic effects of the devastating assaults.
Efforts early on Saturday to push the financial aid package through the Republican-controlled House failed. Some lawmakers objected to the timing of the initiative, so soon after the attacks that left thousands missing and hundreds confirmed dead in New York, Washington and Pennsylvania.
``Now before all the bodies are removed, all the dust is settled, all the fires extinguished, there are those lining up here at the Capitol door, at the public treasury, asking to receive some public subsidy,'' Rep. Lloyd Doggett, a Texas Democrat, complained.
An administration official stressed that the White House was actively looking at ways to aid the industry, but wanted more time to assess the financial state of individual carriers and to formulate an ``appropriate'' response.
``Let's take some time to talk to these (airline executives) and analyze it,'' an official said.
In addition to grants and loans, the administration is looking at proposed legislation that would limit lawsuits against United Airlines and American.
Sen. Christopher Bond, Republican of Missouri, has suggested that the federal government pay the claims of attack victims under the Federal Tort Claims Act.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.