Grounded airlines get green light, but few jets in the air
By JEAN HELLER and STEVE HUETTEL
© St. Petersburg Times,
Although the air transportation system, grounded Tuesday for the first time in the nation's history, got the green light to resume operations at 11 a.m., getting crews and planes matched up and in the right places to fly assigned routes became a nation-sized jigsaw puzzle.
"It's a lot easier to shut this thing down than to start it up," said Terry Trippler, airline expert for OneTravel.com, a travel Web site.
Even where planes and crews were in place, many flights were canceled at the last minute, often because destination airports had not yet passed the rigorous security revamping ordered by the Federal Aviation Administration.
At Tampa International Airport, TWA had passengers at the gate Thursday afternoon for flight 527 to St. Louis and Salt Lake City but canceled at the last minute. Officials said they didn't know the reason for the cancellation, but the FAA had not cleared Salt Lake City to resume operations at that time.
Some scheduled arrivals into Tampa never made it because airlines, which had to comply with their own set of FAA security requirements, were not ready to accept flights.
"You can't take off if you don't have the required security at the other end," said Ed Cooley, senior director of operations at TIA.
Passengers largely took the confusion and the inconvenience of new security precautions in stride.
Carol and Frank McAlpine, who were at TIA trying to get back home to Cincinnati Thursday, said they were happy to see the added security.
"This is the price we pay for our freedom, and it's not too high a price," McAlpine said.
Added his wife, "It's going to make it inconvenient at times, but that suits me fine. They should never go back to curbside check-in. If they do, they're stupid."
By day's end, TIA had seen little more than 1 percent of the 300 arrivals and 300 departures that make up a normal day.
Nationwide, Delta Air Lines and US Airways flew limited schedules Thursday and wouldn't say how many flights they might get into the air today.
Southwest decided to wait until today to begin flying about two-thirds of its normal 2,650-flight daily schedule. The airline wanted to make sure employees understood new security rules, said spokeswoman Whitney Brewer.
Airlines said it will take a few days before their schedules are back to normal. And some airports might take even longer just to reopen. Officials said Reagan National Airport, near landmarks in Washington, D.C., would remain closed indefinitely.
There also was confusion over how some rules applied. Airlines knew, for example, that only ticketed passengers could go through security checkpoints. But some airlines were telling customers that everyone had to check in at the ticket counter to get a boarding pass, even if they had no luggage. US Airways said if passengers had a ticket or documentation of an e-ticket, they could check in at their gate.
A Delta spokeswoman said that also was the airline's current understanding of the rules.
"It's all very fluid, as you can tell," said Katie Connell, a Delta spokeswoman.
U.S. carriers did not resume flights to Europe, in part because some nations wanted a chance to review new security procedures before accepting those flights. The disruption cost Jonathan and Laura Spaner of Odessa a fifth anniversary trip to Zurich.
"We were supposed to go from Tampa to Atlanta to Zurich," Laura said. "We can get to Atlanta, but the Zurich leg has been canceled. So we're driving to Cumberland Island (Ga.) instead."
But both said that if aviation security required this inconvenience, that was fine.
"We're not used to living this way. We're not used to being told that we can't fly to Zurich today," said Jonathan Spaner, a Coast Guard pilot in St. Petersburg. "But that's fine. Whatever it takes. If we have to get to an airport six hours early for a flight, fine."
US Airways hoped to resume some trans-Atlantic routes today, said spokesman David Castelveter. But that depended on how fast the carrier could get planes that were diverted to Canada and Europe on Tuesday back to their usual bases and ready to fly, he said.
The airlines also will not take air cargo or mail on passenger flights for now. FedEx resumed flying Thursday. The carrier expected to deliver most overnight packages on schedule today, said spokeswoman Pam Robertson, but hadn't reinstated its money-back guarantee for on-time delivery.
The short-term parking garage that sits on top of TIA's Landside terminal was closed Thursday and will remain closed for at least a week, said Louis Miller, executive director of the Hillsborough County Aviation Authority. Officials are deciding how to handle the FAA mandate to search all cars parked within 300 feet of the terminal. Valet parking has been suspended.
And on top of everything else, officials were keeping an eye on Tropical Storm Gabrielle as it inched closer to the Tampa Bay area. It could require the airport to shut down or sharply curtail operations just as it is gearing up again.
St. Petersburg-Clearwater International Airport did not expect to resume commercial air service until Thursday night.
"We're a smaller operation, but we're just as vulnerable," said Rich Lesniak, airport operations manager.
One of the few passenger-carrying arrivals at TIA Thursday was AirTran flight 791 from Philadelphia. Passengers reported a somber mood on board.
"People were quiet, so quiet," said Moody Nasr of Lakeland, who had gone to Philadelphia on business with his 14-year-old son, Karin, and was stranded for two days. When they landed at Tampa, Nasr reported that his son said, "Thank God we're on the ground."
Many passengers admitted that they were apprehensive about getting back aboard an airplane.
"Of course I worry about it," said real estate developer Eric Kindlund of East Lansing, Mich., who had been stranded for two days in the Tampa Bay area. "With everything that's been going on, how could you not worry."
Vicki and Carl Hubbell were standing in front of empty Continental ticket positions wondering how and when they would get home to Centerville, Ind.
"We have to get home," Vicki said. "We're not excited about flying. We're apprehensive. But we have to get on a plane sometime."
Continental's only passenger flight out of TIA Thursday was to Cancun, originally a direct flight from Newark that was diverted here Tuesday.
Among the handful of new flights that left, the first was Delta 633 to Atlanta, which departed at 1:20 p.m. with 50 passengers.
For comparison purposes, TIA moves about 37,000 passengers on a normal midweek day.
- Times staff writers Christopher Goffard and Lisa Greene contributed to this report.
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