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President Bush is asking Congress to give the nation’s financially struggling airlines a quick $5 billion in cash and help with any lawsuits stemming from last week’s terrorist attacks. Bush would put off the industry’s request for additional billions of dollars in loans, which the airlines say they need to avert bankruptcies. “This is an immediate reaction. This does not preclude additional actions,” White House press secretary Ari Fleischer said. “We’ll continue to work with Congress on the question of loan guarantees,” he said. Bush will immediately spend $3 billion of the emergency funds that Congress gave him over the weekend to pay for airline and airport security improvements such as fortified cockpits, sky marshals and additional airport searches, Fleischer said. In testimony prepared for the first of a series of congressional hearings on airport security in the wake of last week’s terrorist attacks, Capt. Duane Woerth, president of the Air Line Pilots Association, said Thursday he believes airlines should immediately install deadbolt locks on all airplane cockpits and an additional mesh-net door. House Democratic leader Dick Gephardt of Missouri said details of the relief package were still being worked out between Congress and the administration. He said he hopes the final version will include help for the victims’ families and airline workers laid off as a result of the attacks. “Less important than the amount is that we get the help out there,” he said. “I do think we’ve got to move with some speed in order to prevent the problem from getting worse.” Leadership aides said the intention is to bring a bill to the House floor today. Under the package that White House advisers quietly presented to key congressional staff Wednesday night, Bush also proposed that the government give airlines “temporary terrorism risk insurance” on all their domestic flights for 180 days. Currently, only international routes have such coverage. At the same time, Bush is proposing to help shield airlines from inevitable lawsuits related to last week’s terrorist hijackings of four commercial jetliners. He would bar punitive damages and consolidate all lawsuits into a single federal court, the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York. The government also would pick up whatever cost of compensating victims for damages ultimately exceeds the limits of the airlines’ insurance policies. “The administration has proposed a plan that addresses the immediate issues that are essential for the safety and the stability for the airlines,” Fleischer said. Another White House official said that once Bush’s emergency measures were enacted he and the Congress would talk about loans in order to bolster the airlines’ longer-term solvency. The House originally suggested $15 billion for the industry in legislation proposed last week, and the industry came back with a request for $24 billion. Delta Air Lines Chairman Leo Mullin told Congress Wednesday the industry wanted $12.5 billion in credit and loans, plus $5 billion in immediate cash. “Loan guarantees are essential for the aviation industry,” David Messing, spokesman for Houston-based Continental Airlines, said. “Without a loan guarantee we put the national aviation infrastructure at risk.” Bush told reporters the Sept. 11 attacks that prompted a federally ordered two-day shutdown of all nonmilitary air flights had dealt a “shock” to the economy. “We’ll respond to the emergency in terms of working on a package for the airline industry that has been severely affected,” the president said. Bush was expected to formally send his proposal to Congress on Thursday, even as airlines announced massive layoffs and projected huge losses in the aftermath of last week’s terrorist attacks by hijackers using four jetliners. Leaders were hoping the House would approve an airline industry bailout bill by week’s end, with the Senate following next week. Many lawmakers of both parties want to quickly approve aid for the airlines, which they say are a crucial part of the nation’s economy that cannot be allowed to fail. “The financial damage is and continues to be devastating,” Mullin told the House Transportation Committee, citing the shutdown of service last week and prospects of sharply reduced business in the months ahead. Following a White House meeting Wednesday between Bush and congressional leaders, House Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Ill., told reporters that Transportation Secretary Norman Mineta would give Congress recommendations by Oct. 1 for legislation addressing other, more complex airline problems. These include future airline security. Several lawmakers said any package also should include help for the estimated 100,000 airline workers expected to be laid off because of reduced flight schedules. The major airlines have already announced plans to cut flights back by about 20 percent. “I think it’s safe to say that among the top 10 airlines that there are three who are on the brink” of bankruptcy, Mullin said. He did not specify those three, but Douglas Parker, chairman of America West Airlines, said his company was one of several that could go under if the federal government did not step in. Copyright 2001 Associated Press. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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