Bush OKs $15B Airline Aid Package

The airline industry got the federal equivalent of a frequent-flyer-mile payout Saturday, with President Bush signing a $15 billion aid package to companies hemorraging money since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

"The terrorists who attacked our country on Sept 11 will not shut down our vital businesses or thwart our way of life," Bush said.

The signing came a day after after the House approved the plan 356-54 and cleared the Senate, 96-1.

"We are here to put back on its feet an industry that represents 10 percent of our $7 trillion gross domestic product, ... one without which all the rest of our economy fails," said Rep. James Oberstar of Minnesota, senior Democrat on the House Transportation Committee, Friday.

Most House opponents were Democrats unhappy that the measure did not also provide aid for the 100,000 airline workers being laid off because of the industry's financial troubles. But legislative leaders have promised those who consider the measure inadequate that Congress will consider bills to boost spending on aviation security and aid displaced airline workers.

The legislation contains $5 billion in immediate grants to compensate airlines for losses suffered from the government-ordered grounding of flights and the subsequent drop in passengers following the hijacking of jets that crashed into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.

The measure also authorizes $10 billion in loan guarantees to airlines near bankruptcy because of the steep decline in passenger demand, soaring insurance premiums and increased security costs linked to the terrorist attacks. Major carriers have announced cutbacks of 20 percent or more in service.

Other provisions include steps to ensure that smaller markets won't lose their air service, and to limit airlines' liability for the attacks to the maximum of their insurance coverage. The attorney general is also authorized to appoint a "special master" to decide on claims for those who opt not to file suit in federal court.

It provides domestic airlines with war risk insurance for 180 days and allows the transportation secretary to reimburse air carriers for premium increases.

The legislation also bars pay raises for two years for executives of airlines getting loan guarantees if they already are paid more than $300,000 a year.

Several measures were inserted by lawmakers concerned that airlines would exaggerate their losses or use the government aid to make up for business losses incurred before Sept. 11.

The transportation secretary was authorized to audit loss estimates made by airlines, and Sens. Peter Fitzgerald, R-Ill., and Jon Corzine, D-N.J., included language requiring companies receiving loan guarantees to give the government warrants, or options to buy, the company's common stock.

Fitzgerald was the only senator to vote against the bill. He argued that Congress was "panicking with the taxpayer's money" and giving the industry more than it was actually losing.

The Associated Press contributed to this report