A top federal aviation official tried to coax jittery travelers back to Baltimore-Washington International Airport yesterday, saying that flying is safe despite the war with Iraq.
Daniel J. Peterson, eastern regional administrator with the Federal Aviation Administration, toured BWI and then told reporters that he was "very satisfied" with efforts to protect passengers from a terrorist attack, hijacking or bombing.
Mr. Peterson is barnstorming eastern airports to review their compliance with tougher, FAA-ordered security measures and to reassure air travelers. The war and fear of terrorism, which has reduced airline traffic nationwide, has left rows of empty spaces in BWI's parking lots and a long line of idle cabs.
The FAA's tougher security includes elimination of curbside check-in, a policy of searching and seizing all unattended luggage and prohibiting people without tickets from entering concourses leading to gates.
While Iraqi President Saddam Hussein has a record of sponsoring terrorism, Mr. Peterson told reporters yesterday, "There is no specific and credible evidence of threats [against the U.S. airline industry] connected to Iraqi terrorism."
Bomb threats have increased at many U.S. airports since the war began Jan. 17, he added, but all apparently were bogus. BWI DTC has not experienced any increase in threats, Mr. Peterson said.
Government officials and travel industry representatives say that airports nationwide have seen a drop in passengers, especially on overseas flights, in the past two weeks. "Obviously, traffic is off a great deal," said Kathleen Henriques, spokesman for the Air Transportation Association, which represents the major air carriers.
Ms. Henriques and others said it was too early to estimate how bad the travel slump is. Federal and state aviation officials agreed.
But Albert Pruzhinin, a 35-year-old cabdriver who works out of BWI, said the war has slashed his business about 30 percent.
"I've been sitting here for two hours, and there are another 60 or 70 cabs stacked up behind me" said Mr. Pruzhinin, who was playing checkers yesterday afternoon on the hood of a cab parked at the departure curb.
Individual airlines, already suffering from the economic downturn, have reported declines in passenger bookings of up to 30 percent.
Bruce Hoffman, a security expert with the Rand Corp. in Santa Monica, Calif., said the threat of a terrorist attack against an airline is probably "much higher" now than it was before Jan. 17.
But he said that threat was extremely low to begin with. "Since 1985 there have been only 27 terrorist attacks against airlines," he said. "That's a pretty low number to be so worried about, compared to the fear that is being generated in the U.S. and around the world."