Thursday PM December 14th, 2006

Record number of Christmas travelers expected...SEC votes to ease audit requirements...FMC Technologies to close Pennsylvania plant...

More Americans than ever are expected to travel over the Christmas holiday. About 65 million people will crowd onto roads and into airplanes between December 23rd and January 2nd, according to a survey by the Travel Industry Association and AAA. That would top the record 63.5 million who traveled at least 50 miles from home over the holidays last year. More than 50 million will journey by car, truck or RV, while nine million will fly, according to the survey. Another three million will take buses or trains. Industry analysts say hotel rates, air fares and gas prices have risen only slightly from this time last year. And even though air travel has gotten more expensive this year, Christmas fares are about the same as they were last year, according to AAA.


Securities regulators have voted to ease audit requirements, according to the Washington Post. The SEC voted unanimously for a plan that would slash costs for corporations. Under the revised plan, corporate managers will be instructed to use their best judgment and focus on areas that pose the greatest financial statements. After Enron's collapse, Congress passed a law requiring executives and auditors to check closely specific financial control areas, including integrity of executives. The audit rules have cost businesses millions more than lawmakers expected. This is the first overhaul of Sarbanes-Oxley compliance guidelines in four years.


If leaders of United and Houston-based Continental agree to merge their airlines, that would leave the uphill work of combining two work forces with different unions and conflicting interests. The history of the airline industry is littered with cases in which boardroom peace was followed by rancor among high-flying work forces. Workers at both carriers have taken pay cuts since 2001. But the slashing was far worse at United, which entered bankruptcy protection. United terminated its pension plans; Continental didn't. But optimists said the two carriers have complementary route structures. United is strong on the West Coast, across the Pacific and in European hubs. Continental is big in other European markets, Latin America and the Northeast. That would suggest few layoffs, other than in redundant layers of management.

It's one of the biggest corporate buyouts in Australian history. Qantas Airways has accepted an $8.64 billion takeover offer from a private equity consortium. That group includes Australia's Macquarie Bank and the Fort Worth-based Texas Pacific Group. Qantas Chairman Margaret Jackson says the board had unanimously agreed to recommend to shareholders that they accept the offer. The announcement follows Qantas rejection one day earlier of the consortium's $8.6 billion offer. The deal would leave in Australian hands the iconic airline--easily identified by its red and white kangaroo logo. Australian control is likely to improve chances of winning Australian government approval for the deal. Australian law limits foreign-ownership of Qantas at 49 percent, with each overseas individual allowed to hold a maximum 25 percent of shares.

United Airlines has asked the feds to block an effort by American Airlines to change its proposal for new service to China. United says American's recent request to add a Chicago stopover on its proposed Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport-to-Beijing flights broke Transportation Department rules. United, Fort Worth-based American, Northwest Airlines and Houston-based Continental Airlines submitted bids before a deadline in October. But American has now asked to change its plan because a direct DFW-to-Beijing flight would violate limits on working hours in its contract with pilots. The Transportation Department is expected to award the new China route in the next few weeks. Other airlines had until Wednesday to respond to American's updated proposal, which Northwest says should be rejected.


Houston-based FMC Technologies will be closing a plant in western Pennsylvania. Officials say the jobs of 70 employees at the unit in Home City, Pennsylvania, will be eliminated. The unit's light-industry product line will be consolidated into FMC plants in Tupelo, Mississippi; and Changshu, China. The Pennsylvania employees will be eligible for severance payments based on their years of service. The company will also offer support and transition services. FMC, which makes machines for manufacturers and other industrial products, transferred 61 jobs to Tupelo last year. The closing will end FMC's 69-year manufacturing history in Indiana County, Pennsylvania.


OPEC ministers have agreed in principle to leave production unchanged for now. But delegates to the group's year-end meeting say they've set the stage for a likely cutback of half a million barrels a day in February. The proposal, which still has to be formally approved by the oil ministers of the eleven-nation organization of petroleum exporting countries later in the day, is meant to bridge differences between members who favored immediate cuts and those who supported the status quo.


A federal judge has called the Bush administration's handling of a Hurricane Katrina housing program "a legal disaster.'' The judge, who ruled last month that FEMA had violated evacuees' constitutional rights by eliminating their housing payments without notice, criticized the government for not restarting the program quickly enough for between 3,600 and 5,500 storm victims. The judge ruled that FEMA mishandled the transition from a short-term housing program to a longer-term program this spring and summer. He also said that FEMA only provided computer-generated and sometimes conflicting program codes instead of explaining why the funding was being cut. The judge has ordered the agency to explain those decisions so thousands of evacuees can understand the reasoning and decide whether to appeal.


A crackdown on illegal immigrants in the workplace--the largest ever by federal authorities--is drawing mixed reviews. Advocates for more enforcement weren't impressed, immigrant rights groups howled in protest, and labor union lawyers filed court papers claiming violations of the workers' constitutional rights. Federal officials say their raids on Swift meatpacking plants in Texas and five other states uncovered identity theft as a tool to obtain employment. Some five percent of the nearly 1,300 arrests resulted in identity theft charges. Authorities say the number probably would rise as agents look into more workers' cases and into rings of vendors who steal and sell illegal documents. The fallout of a six-state immigration raid on a meat packing company is obvious in the small panhandle town of Cactus. Mayor Luis Aguilar also owns the grocery store. He told the Amarillo Globe-News that the town's economic outlook was bleak.

The Mexican government says about 600 of the almost 1,300 meatpacking employees detained in U.S. immigration raids are Mexicans. It's calling on U.S. authorities to temporarily release mothers detained in the raids so they can care for their U.S.-born children. Mexico's Foreign Relations Department says it's working with U.S. community groups to ensure those children placed in the care of relatives--or "in isolated cases'' in the care of child welfare authorities. It says Mexican consular officials had interviewed many of the detainees and offered to relay messages to relatives worried about their whereabouts. U.S. immigration agents arrested immigrants at Swift meat processing plants in six states--including in the Texas panhandle town of Cactus. That was after a nearly year-long investigation revealed that illegal immigrants and others may have stolen or bought identities and social security numbers of U.S. citizens and residents in order to work there.


BP today honored the memory of 15 people who died in a Texas City refinery explosion by giving $12.5 million to a hospital. The donation will benefit the adult burn unit at the University of Texas Medical Branch in Galveston. More than 170 people were hurt in the fiery accident. Officials say the hospital unit treated those most critically injured by the blast. The funding is part of last month's settlement between London-based BP and the daughter of two workers killed in the explosion. Eva Rowe had sued BP over the deaths of her parents, James and Linda Rowe of Hornbeck, Louisiana. BP spokesman Neil Chapman has said the company has made vast changes at the plant since the explosion--to improve safety.


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