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Airlines try to get their bearings

Airline pilots log hours in cockpit simulators, preparing for all kinds of in-flight (and on-the-ground) scenarios.

There's room for seat-of-the-pants reactions. But the single best response to just about any crisis is usually laid out in a checklist.

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For the airline industry itself, hearing loud warnings in dollar-loss terms, no clear checklist exists. Anyway, what it needs now, as our lead story explains, may be something closer to a new blueprint.

The stakes are high for America.

"For-hire" transportation firms, including airlines, contribute about 3 percent of our gross domestic product. (Services, by comparison, account for more than 20 percent.)

In annual ton-miles of freight, trucks and trains each carry 100 times the cargo that airlines move, according to the most current Commerce Department figures.

But scan the numbers for what the statisticians call "person miles," and you'll see proof of what you probably knew: When Americans travel long distances, they go by air.

They have to. For most US firms, teleconferencing remains many technological leaps away from doing the job that "face to face" can. And for most family vacationers, Disney World is too long a drive.

Which airlines will stay aloft to serve them, once the new federal grants and loans run out?

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Check recent history. Airlines had their management woes before Sept. 11. They also had triumphs.

Industry leaders like Southwest's Herb Kelleher and Continental's Gordon Bethune were often called "mavericks" for walking down from the corner office to listen to their employees on the front lines.

Ideas trickled up. Employees flourished - and customers gained.

The industry may now benefit from flying a similar course.

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