Major airlines take off again as U.S. aviation system reopens amid tighter security
The first few jetliners returned to the nation’s skies Thursday, but several major airports remained closed and others opened only briefly. The few nervous passengers who did travel faced strict new security measures following the terrorist attacks in New York and Washington.
There was tension and confusion as the aviation industry inched back into service for the first time in two days.
The New York area’s three major airports – Kennedy, LaGuardia and Newark, N.J. – were opened and then abruptly shut down as FBI officials detained several people for questioning in the attacks. Police said a man carrying a false pilot’s identification was arrested at Kennedy after trying to get past security.
Earlier, Orlando International Airport and a terminal at LaGuardia were briefly evacuated over separate, unfounded bomb scares. And after briefly resuming limited service, Northwest Airlines canceled all flights Thursday evening after receiving information a spokeswoman said indicated it was ”not prudent to operate.” No other details were released.
By late afternoon, about 250 commercial airline flights were traveling in U.S. air space, the Federal Aviation Administration said. On a normal Thursday, about 6,000 flights would be in the air, including military and private planes.
Elsewhere, no planes had left Chicago’s busy O’Hare International Airport by evening and authorities said Washington’s Reagan National Airport, near many of the capital’s landmarks, would remain closed indefinitely.
FAA Administrator Jane Garvey told reporters that Boston’s Logan airport would not be reopened until new stricter safety measures are in place. The airport is under investigation for possible security breaches before the attacks.
Despite all the confusion, travelers for the first time since Tuesday had the option of flying in the United States – even if the service was limited to a handful of flights.
At Sky Harbor International Airport in Phoenix, Sam Hemphill was among a dozen people lined up at a TWA ticket counter. He said he was uneasy about flying but wanted to get home to Jacksonville, Fla.
”Whatever happens, happens,” Hemphill said. ”You have to keep going. If you stop living life, they’ve won.”
Lisa Adamson of Vancouver, Wash., was among the passengers on the first commercial flight to leave Portland, Ore., since Tuesday – a Delta jet headed for Kansas City, Mo.
”I feel nervous,” she said. People at the food court cheered as the jet took off.
The airlines were grounded Tuesday after jets hijacked in Boston, Newark and Washington’s Dulles airport were crashed into the World Trade Center, the Pentagon and a Pennsylvania field.
Transportation Secretary Norman Mineta cleared the way for commercial flights to resume Thursday, saying airports would be opened and flights resumed on a case-by-case basis – but only after the new security measures are in place. Private flights are still banned.
Under the tightest airport security since the Persian Gulf War in 1991, there will be no more curbside check-ins or visits to terminal gates to meet passengers.
Knives and other cutting tools, even plastic ones, are prohibited. Mail and cargo are temporarily banned from passenger flights.
Federal marshals were on hand at many airports.
”People in this country have a hang-up about having their personal space invaded, but when you’re in this situation you have to sacrifice some of your individuality,” said Kevin McArthur, a business consultant waiting at Denver International Airport for a flight to Chicago.
In Phoenix, three Northwest Airlines employees intentionally breached a security, carrying a small knife and a corkscrew past a checkpoint to show that security gaps still exist.
At Dulles, domestic flights took off Thursday evening amid a visibly increased police presence.
”I’m four days late going home, but that’s better than what happened to a lot of people,” said Burt Bates, a lawyer from Kansas City waiting to board a flight on Midwest Express. ”Under the circumstances, it’s very insignificant.”
The disasters were on the minds of even the most experienced travelers. Northwest employees were urged by union officials to wear black ribbons on their uniform lapels.
Some of the first flights over U.S. airspace Thursday were jets that had been diverted to Canada when the terrorists struck.
Among them was Alitalia Flight 624, which left Calgary, Canada, for San Francisco but was forced to turn around by military jets whose pilots apparently believed American air space was off-limits to international flights. After clarification from the FAA, the flight – which originated in Milan on Tuesday – landed in San Francisco two hours later than expected and 48 hours late overall.
Another Alitalia flight left Calgary and landed in Los Angeles.
”It’s very sad what happened and it’s good to be home,” passenger Raymond Civetello of Alhambra, Calif., said as tears rolled down his face.
The San Diego airport was largely deserted, with a few business and vacation travelers waiting for a spot on a handful of flights expected to leave late Thursday. Skycaps and other airport employees, standing around in small groups talking, outnumbered passengers.
Travelers ran into long lines at Hartsfield Atlanta International Airport, the world’s busiest.
John Heltzel of Sunnyvale, Calif., was hoping for a flight to celebrate his parents’ wedding anniversary in Salem, Ore. He said he was considering driving to the West Coast.
”I need to get there,” he said. ”I’ve changed flights nine times.”
June Fyfe of Harlingen, Texas, sported a red, white and blue ribbon as she read a mystery novel to pass eight hours at the Dallas-Fort Worth airport before her flight to Las Vegas.
”I’m not going to sit home,” said Fyfe, 71. ”The record of the airlines is that they’re the safest mode of transportation. Safer than your bath tub.”
Precise figures on the number of number of aircraft flying and airports open Thursday were unavailable, but FAA spokesman Bill Shumann said traffic was clearly a fraction of what it would be under normal circumstances.
Agents from the U.S. Marshals Service, U.S. Border Patrol and U.S. Customs were deployed at airport security check points across the country.
”We have taken every precaution to make sure it is safe to fly in America,” President Bush said Thursday. ”There are beefed-up security in our airports, there’s increased presence on the airplanes. Yes, if a family member asked if they should fly, I would say yes.”
However, major airlines warned that it would take days to return to normal service. Delta, American and TWA offered a limited schedule, and United put off scheduled service until Friday morning.
Continental canceled all regularly scheduled flights for the day.
At the Denver airport, Jay Jardim and his wife, Kim, of Silverthorne, Colo., hoped to get a flight to the New York area because Jardim’s older brother was missing in the trade center attack.
Jardim’s brother was on the 106th floor when the jet hit his tower. Jardim said his brother sent a quick text message but hasn’t been heard from since.
”We’re just hoping for some sort of priority list for not just us but all of the families of the victims,” Jardim said.
In Newark, Livia Sanchez was about to fly home Tuesday to West Palm Beach, Fla., when the airport was evacuated. She learned Thursday that she would be unable take her Continental Airlines flight until Sunday, so she headed for a train station.
”I went to the train, but the train was full, so I went to the bus,” said Sanchez, 42, a farm labor contractor about to take the longest Greyhound trip of her life. ”I love New York, but I don’t think I’ll come back.”
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