Airline shares fall on worries over travel

AirlinesAirline shares fell in Monday morning trading on fears that new security restrictions swiftly implemented following a botched attempt to blow up an airliner could curtail business travel on lucrative international routes.

There are already signs that travel is becoming more burdensome. Passengers are facing longer lines at checkpoints and less freedom to move around airplanes during flights.

Leisure travelers, such as the families that packed airports to return home on Sunday after the holiday, are likely to put up with the new inconveniences.

But business travelers, who are key customers for the airlines, may think twice before flying if stepped-up security means spending hours at the airport. That’s troubling to the airlines, because business travelers tend to fly frequently and pay higher fares.

Some business travelers could jump from the major airlines to smaller business jets to avoid wasting hours in the terminal every time they fly, said airline consultant Robert Mann.

The new security measures are “just going to add to the overall onerous way we have to conduct travel,” said Kevin Mitchell, president of the Business Travel Coalition. “No doubt it will dampen demand.”

Alarmed by the prospect of losing their best customers, airlines are already asking federal officials to make any new procedures palatable to passengers.

Shares of Delta Air Lines Inc. lost 50 cents, or 4.3 percent, to $11.27. American Airlines’ parent AMR Corp.’s stock fell 25 cents, or 3.1 percent, to $7.89.

Other airline shares dropped in morning trading. Continental Airlines Inc. lost 42 cents, or 2.3 percent, to $18.08, while United parent UAL Corp. fell 12 cents to $12.97 and US Airways Group Inc. slipped 16 cents, or 3 percent, to $5.22. JetBlue Airways Corp. shares lost 14 cents, or 2.5 percent, to $5.50.

The Amex Airline Index, a basket of air carrier stocks, was down 0.33 point, or nearly 1 percent, to 34.26.

The declines follow a sharp rally than began in the summer. Airline shares had suffered during the recession as business travelers cut back on trips or opted for cheaper fares, but since early July, shares of United more than tripled, while AMR, Delta, and Continental shares nearly doubled.

The rally gained steam after Thanksgiving, with the six biggest carriers up as much as 20 percent to 55 percent.

Tougher airline security measures were imposed Friday after a man flying from Nigeria to Amsterdam then to the U.S. on a Northwest Airlines flight tried to ignite an explosive as the plane prepared to land in Detroit. On Sunday, police met another Amsterdam-to-Detroit flight after the crew reported a “verbally disruptive passenger.” A law enforcement official said the man posed no security risk to the plane.

Government officials didn’t detail the restrictions, saying they don’t want terrorists to know about potential security measures. They also declined to say how long the measures would be in effect and said the limits could vary from airport to airport.

Authorities introduced a second layer of security at Pearson International Airport in Toronto. On Monday morning, every U.S.-bound passenger was subjected to a pat down and their luggage was inspected by hand. It took about three hours for travelers to get through the checks.

On one Air Canada flight from Toronto to New York’s La Guardia Airport the crew told passengers before departure that in addition to remaining in their seats for the duration of one-hour flight, they were not allowed to use any electronic devices ? even iPods ? or their own headphones. The crew also told passengers that they would not be able to access their personal belongings because of the “enhanced security procedures.”

Over the weekend, travelers on incoming international flights said that during the final hour, attendants removed blankets, banned opening overhead bins, and told passengers to stay in their seats with their hands in plain sight.

In Philadelphia, sisters Leslie and Lilliam Bernal said security was much tighter as they returned from a wedding in the Dominican Republic than it had been in September, when they made the same trip.

Leslie, 26, of Keasby, N.J., said security screeners in Santo Domingo asked her to lift her long hair so they could look at her back.

“I don’t mind at all,” she said. “I’d rather them do what they have to do.”

At Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport, television screens were tuned to the Atlanta Falcons football game, and some passengers were only faintly aware of Friday’s incident in Detroit.

Jeff Fox, of Alpharetta, Ga., who was returning with his family from Ft. Lauderdale, Fla. after a weeklong cruise, said he will tolerate new restrictions if officials think they will keep passengers safer.

“I’m one of those who trusts that they’re trying to do the right thing, even if it is a pain,” he said.

Silvia Zhang, 20, of Chicago, said restrictions on her flight from Hong Kong to O’Hare Airport made her feel “like I was in school again ? there were too many rules.”

But, she added, “it might be necessary because of what happened.”

Ricky Sui, a 44-year-old Atlanta resident, said attendants on his flight home Sunday from Panama were clearly more vigilant, making everyone shut off laptops and taking up blankets. But he doubted that such steps would make a difference.

“It’s all to appease the public and make you feel safer,” he said. “They get all excited for a while, but in a couple months they won’t be doing it anymore.”

Leisure travelers “tend to be very accommodating of changes in the security regime,” said Mann, the airline consultant. “My concern is that business travelers are less so” because they buy high-priced tickets and expect to spend the least possible time waiting at airports.

There is no talk of panic, said Jack Riepe, a spokesman for the Association of Corporate Travel Executives. “We’re not looking at massive cancelations,” he said.

But Riepe said corporate travel managers want the government to explain how Friday’s suspect reached Detroit even though he was on a watch list maintained by counterterrorism experts. A government official said the suspect’s father raised concerns about him to U.S. officials several weeks ago, but the father’s information about his son’s possible ties to fundamentalist Islamic groups was too vague to act upon.

Darryl Jenkins, an airline industry consultant, predicted that any increase in airport lines would be temporary, until security screeners become proficient at operating under new rules.

“This is disruptive, and we all hate it, but I don’t think it’s going to affect (travel) demand,” Jenkins said. “Now if it had been a successful attempt, that would be something else.”

U.S. airlines have been appealing to federal officials to make restrictions effective but palatable to passengers.

They remember that passengers accepted tough new security measures immediately after the 2001 terror attacks, which grounded all flights for several days, but that support for the restrictions waned.

“Today that attempt on Friday is fresh in their minds,” said David Castelveter, a spokesman for the Air Transport Association, a trade group for the largest U.S. airlines. “As days and weeks and months go on, that memory fades and it becomes an inconvenience.”

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press.