Airlines fly own courses on security
WestJet rejects Air Canada's suggestion that Ottawa take over preflight screening
By STEVEN CHASE, The Globe and Mail
With files from Kim Lunman in Victoria
Wednesday, September 19, 2001
OTTAWA -- Air Canada has asked Ottawa to take over preflight screening of passengers and baggage from airlines, but its rival WestJet Airlines is calling such a move unnecessary and misguided.
"What [Air Canada is] trying to find is ways the government can subsidize their operation," said Clive Beddoe, chairman and chief executive officer of Calgary-based WestJet.
Air Canada spokeswoman Laura Cooke said the carrier wants the federal government to take responsibility for screening passengers and baggage because the airline industry is reeling from the economic shock of last week's terrorist attacks in the United States. The attacks have led to reductions in the numbers of flights and passengers flying.
"Given the unprecedented financial situation facing the carrier community, we believe the federal government should assume responsibility for the costs associated with security," Ms. Cooke said. "They are not the costs that the airline feels they can assume right now, given the current financial picture."
Transport Minister David Collenette said he believes the standards governing preflight screening of passengers and baggage are more important than who actually runs them, but agreed the question is open to debate.
"The key is to make sure the measures are the ones that are tough and deal with all manner of threats," he told reporters yesterday.
Canadian carriers contract and pay for security firms to conduct preflight screening in Canada, which costs airlines 85 cents to $1.75 for each passenger, depending on the size of the airport, an industry insider said.
The airlines are not responsible for security on airport premises.
Critics are questioning the level of security: Transport Canada documents obtained by CTV News on Monday said that 18 per cent of dummy weapons went undetected when federal inspectors tried to smuggle them through airport terminal security checks.
Mr. Beddoe said he believes the private sector can still do a better job of running preflight screening security, as long as the standards and quality of training for staff are improved.
"Without meaning to be disrespectful to government, I truly believe that private enterprise can do things better than government can," he said.
Transport Canada sets the standards for security at airports, and Mr. Beddoe said he thinks passengers would be willing to pay a little bit more on their ticket if that's what it takes to meet higher standards.
"I think the issue is to get this to a standard that is acceptable, and if that takes another 25 cents or 50 cents per passenger, so be it."
Mr. Beddoe suggested firms providing airport security should be penalized if they fail to meet standards.
Cliff Mackay, president of the Air Transport Association of Canada, said "there isn't a consensus" among air carriers right now on the question of Ottawa assuming responsibility for passenger and baggage screening.
He said carriers are still debating whether that would be best. He said there's no guarantee this would save airlines money.
"Why would you assume the government wouldn't charge it back somehow? . . . we pay for everything else the government does."
A security industry insider whose company once provided services at Canadian airports said security staff at airports are "underpaid for what we are asking them to do, undersupervised and undermaintained."
Derek Baldwin, director of worldwide operations at Toronto-based Ibis Corp., said he believes the government should bankroll security at places such as airports because airline financing of security leaves open the possibility that carriers can "de-emphasize whatever they can de-emphasize in order to improve the bottom line."
In Victoria yesterday, airport terrorism was a hot topic at a gathering of world aviation safety experts.
Captain Charles Simpson of the Transportation Safety Board of Canada said the federal government should beef up airport security instead of installing gun-toting air marshals aboard flights, an idea gaining currency in the United States.
"In a pressurized airplane, you don't want to have a shootout," he said. "If you have good ground security, you remove the risk."
Frank DelGandio, president of the International Society of Air Safety Investigators, said the best way to prevent terrorism is to stop it on the ground with better training for frontline security officials at airports.
"You're never going to make it airtight," he said. "It's safer than it's been since World War II.