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Airline aid bill may hit Congress this week

House hearing
Airline officials discuss the industry's financial problems with lawmakers at a House hearing.  

HOUSTON, Texas (CNN) -- House Majority Whip Tom DeLay pledged Wednesday to introduce by the end of the week legislation providing a $24 billion package of loans, guarantees and outright compensation for the battered airline industry.

He urged the Senate to take immediate action on the bill, so the package would reach the president's desk before the end of the weekend.

In a joint news conference, he and Continental Airline's chief executive, Gordon Bethune, outlined the critical need for immediate relief for the industry.

DeLay said the tax deferrals and other measures are necessary to start rebuilding the public's confidence in the nation's airlines.

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He said the bill would not be a blank check -- some of the money would have to be repaid -- but he said the airlines need some direct compensation to make up for increased security costs, money lost when flights were grounded by the government, and reduced income resulting from a 36 percent drop in passenger loads.

Bethune, saying the industry cannot sustain the current losses of $15 million dollars per hour, said the relief bill is "vital to our survival." He said Continental Airlines is expecting losses of 50 percent in the fourth quarter, and the relief bill is imperative to preserve jobs and restore stability.

Continental announced last weekend that it is cutting 12,000 jobs in the wake of the September 11 terrorist attacks.

DeLay said that Congress would take into consideration the market conditions prior to September 11, when some airlines were already expecting layoffs, and would focus the legislation on the aftereffects of the attacks.

Controversial issues such as increasing airline security, redesigning planes, providing service to small cities, and putting federal marshals on flights are likely to be bundled in a separate bill, DeLay said.

The airline industry is not waiting for government action on all of these issues.

An industry report is due out next week on the best way to immediately increase airline security. One long-term goal, Bethune said, is to make cockpits secure against forced entry.

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