St. Petersburg Times Online: World and Nation

Weather | Sports | Forums | Comics | Classifieds | Calendar | Movies

Flight stoppage has widespread repercussions

Passenger flights are only part of the disruptions as freight deliveries are also brought to a halt.


© St. Petersburg Times, published September 12, 2001

The federal government ordered an unprecedented halt to air traffic Tuesday, closing the nation's airports and grounding all domestic and international flights until at least midday today.

The federal government ordered an unprecedented halt to air traffic Tuesday, closing the nation's airports and grounding all domestic and international flights until at least midday today.

Federal Aviation Administration officials put a "ground stop" on departing flights and directed planes in the air to land at the nearest practical airport at 9:49 a.m., shortly after a second hijacked airliner crashed into the World Trade Center.

Thousands of passengers were left stranded. The FAA said airlines won't get the green light to resume flying before noon EST today. But it was not clear that flying would resume even then. Whenever planes are allowed back in the skies, flights will probably be a mess as carriers scramble to get planes and crews in position to resume regular schedules.

The disruption will touch people who never leave the ground. Overnight and expedited delivery packages that fly in airplanes will be delayed, said the U.S. Postal Service, FedEx and UPS.

A wide array of goods shipped by air -- from auto manufacturing parts and computer components to perishables such as fresh fish and flowers -- also are grounded.

"These deliveries keep production lines going and oil rigs working," said Daniel Fernandez of the International Air Cargo Association in Miami. "It's mind-boggling. If you need a part in a matter of hours, you're stuck."

Even when flights resume, passenger traffic will likely drop at least temporarily as it did during the Gulf War, said Michael E. Levine, a former Northwest and Continental Airlines executive who now teaches law at Harvard University.

That could be a disaster for airlines, already expected to lose $2-billion to $3-billion this year due largely to a slump in business travel caused by the souring economy. None of the hijacked planes, for example, was more than one-third full.

"Business is not good already, and this comes on top of their struggle for business travelers," he said. "How long will it take people to get comfortable to get on a plane again? I don't know."

Kelly Sutmaier, owner of Morgan Travel in Tampa, said at least four customers called to cancel trips. One was planning to go to Egypt in February but opted instead for a cruise to Hawaii.

Others wanted nothing to do with flying. "Lots of people are canceling trips for the next day or two saying, "I'm not going anywhere,"' Sutmaier said.

Airports around the nation were put on heightened security.

Los Angeles International Airport and San Francisco International Airport were evacuated except for essential personnel, officials said. Logan International in Boston, where two of the hijacked planes took off, underwent a security sweep.

Gate concourses were closed off at Tampa International, Chicago's O'Hare International, Seattle-Tacoma International and other airports.

FAA officials couldn't say how many people were stranded or scheduled to fly Tuesday. But an average of more than 1.8-million passengers flew daily last year on nearly 25,000 domestic and international flights in the country, according to the Air Transport Association, an airline industry group.

More than 38-million tourists coming to Florida fly into the state each year, according to Visit Florida, the state's tourism agency. The agency hadn't heard from hotels, theme parks or other businesses worried about the potential impact on their bottom lines, said spokesman Robby Cunningham.

But Pilot Air Freight in Tampa and other freight forwarders had to turn down businesses trying to get their products to customers Tuesday.

That included two fresh fish companies and businesses that make manufacturing and computer equipment, said Rafael Gonzalez, Pilot's international manager.

"This is unprecedented," he said. "We've had times where we had to route stuff through Atlanta or Miami because of bad weather in New York. But we can't get stuff through anywhere."

The closest the nation's air transportation system came to a shutdown, aviation experts say, was when air traffic controllers went on strike in 1981.

On the first day of the strike, about 80 percent of Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization members walked out. But the FAA, using supervisors and non-strikers, got 60 percent of commercial flights in the air.

On Tuesday, the government-ordered shutdown created major headaches for the U.S. Postal Service.

The Tampa International post office, which processes mail for Tampa and much of Pinellas County, sent 16,000 pounds of overnight and first-class mail to the airport for shipment, said Bridget Robertson, customer relations manager.

FedEx, which carries Postal Service air mail, sent all of it back, she said, and postal officials put the mail on trucks. The postal service accepted overnight packages Tuesday but didn't guarantee them for 3 p.m. delivery today.

FedEx estimated that shipments would run 24 hours to 48 hours late. UPS canceled overnight service Tuesday. The company wouldn't guarantee on-time delivery for any shipments and indefinitely suspended parcel pick-ups for the New York City and Washington, D.C., areas.

- Times staff writer J. Nealy-Brown and researcher John Martin contributed to this report. Information from Associated Press also was used.

© Copyright, St. Petersburg Times. All rights reserved.