Web Becomes Key Interface For Airlines

When the nation's two largest airlines learned that four of their aircraft had become weapons of terrorists, their online resources faced their most severe test since the arrival of the Internet.

When the nations two largest airlines learned that four of their aircraft had become weapons of terrorists, their online resources faced their most severe test since the arrival of the Internet.

American and United Airlines quickly issued and updated press releases on their stripped down sites, While neither the FAA nor the FBI were providing information online, American was using its site to clarify details on stories reporters had contacted them for, including a rejoinder on fines that the FAA had imposed over security violations.

United Airlines detailed plans to advance $25,000 to the families of victims immediately, and informed the public that the crewmembers killed in the crashes had been identified.

In New York, which depends on tourism as well as convention and other business to support its economy, one of the hotels devastated by the World Trade Center bombing used the Internet to update families of guests.

"The hotel has been evacuated. We are working closely with authorities and they are managing the situation. We will continue to monitor and provide updates as we have new information," the Marriott at the World Trade Center announced. "We are activating a special number for inquiries and it will be available soon."

The Federal Aviation Administration made little immediate use of its Web assets. In fact, the airlines saw little leadership from the FAA other than the blanket closure of U.S. airports after the terrorist attacks, according to aviation consultant Mike Boyd, president of The Boyd Group in Evergreen, Colo.

"The FAA, for the record, is incompetent," Boyd said. "If nothing else proves it, this does. We now have a situation where the FAA is going to try to cover its tail."

Facing the largest criminal investigation in the nations history, the FAA maintained its silence on the security breeches and questions about its leadership in a crisis. But Transportation Secretary Norman Mineta offered a partial defense of the agency.

"In a democracy, there is always a balance between freedom and security," Mineta said in a prepared statement. "Our transportation systems, reflecting the values of our society, have always operated in an open and accessible manner. And, they will again."

Despite the rapid response, the airlines face devastating losses in an economy that was already in a deep slump. In the Internet economy, the most prominent victims could be the online travel sites that cater to leisure travelers.

In previous air disasters, post-event traffic has fallen, notably in 1996 with the crash of TWA Flight 800, which was initially thought to be a terrorist attack.

While the traffic recovered, TWA did not, collapsing into bankruptcy and eventually being acquired by American Airlines.

In the Gulf War a decade ago, the broader domestic travel industry also suffered severely as the nation toppled into recession. Hotel occupancy fell to just over 62 percent, compared with a 65 percent break-even figure of that time, and Coopers & Lybrand, now PricewaterhouseCoopers, estimated that 60 percent of the hotels in 1991 lost an average of more than $1,000 a room.

Cities dependent on tourism and convention business also suffered. Hawaii lost about 850,000 tourists from 1991 through 1993. Most were Japanese who opted for Australia or for staying home, rather than risk the possibility of a terrorist incident on the way to or in the United States.