Airports reopen runways

Tighter security greets travelers

some airlines wait

Terrorism Strikes America

Returning To The Skies

September 14, 2001|By Marcia Myers and Rona Kobell | Marcia Myers and Rona Kobell,SUN STAFF

Americans took to the skies again yesterday, but it was a halting, bumpy ride. Airlines resumed a relative handful of flights two days after terrorist hijackings grounded all planes, but progress proved agonizingly slow, and it's expected to take days for normality to return.

Officially, the skies reopened at 11 a.m., more than 48 hours after terrorists commandeered four jetliners and crashed them into the World Trade Center towers, the Pentagon and a field in Pennsylvania.

Baltimore-Washington International Airport was among the first airports to reopen its doors. But for hours the only air travel across the country involved shuttling empty planes between airports or completing flights interrupted two days earlier.

FOR THE RECORD - An article in Friday's editions of The Sun about resumption of air travel incorrectly attributed a comment to Doris Cuneo of California. Her husband, Ernie, was the one who asked whether purses would be allowed on board.
The Sun regrets the error.

More than half of U.S. airports, including Reagan National, remained closed yesterday awaiting federal clearance that their new security systems are adequate. And just as flights resumed, three airports in the New York City area suddenly closed, citing "FBI activity."

At a subsequent briefing, FBI officials said that a number of men had been taken into custody for violation of immigration laws, and were being questioned. They disputed reports that the men had been carrying knives and pilot certificates.

Northwest Airlines also abruptly canceled all its scheduled flights last night, informing passengers that "external information has come to Northwest's attention that it is not prudent to fly this evening." An airline spokeswoman declined to elaborate.

Amid such starts and stops, many travelers remained in a state of confusion and frustration - and, in some cases, fear. But others refused to be daunted, either by new, time-consuming security measures or the specter of another hijacking.

"Hell, no," answered Dan Aluctiza when asked if he was worried as he boarded Delta Flight 731 - the first plane with passengers to leave BWI since Tuesday - about 4:30 p.m. "I'm proud to be on the first flight."

The 39-year-old hat distributor from the Eastern Shore wasn't hesitant as he and 61 other passengers were herded though the security gate. "If you let the terrorists scare you, what does that do? They win."

Bogus bomb scares briefly evacuated Orlando International Airport as well as a terminal at La Guardia in New York before the FBI ordered it shut down.

Federal officials urged air travelers to be patient.

"I must caution everyone that a system as diverse and complex as ours cannot be brought up instantly," Transportation Secretary Norman Y. Mineta said yesterday morning in lifting the unprecedented flight ban.

Because of uncertainty about which airports would meet the new federal requirements, some airlines chose to keep their planes on the ground, including Southwest, BWI's largest carrier. The extra day was also needed to get planes in position to resume service, according to the company.

"We have too many aircraft in some cities and not enough in others," said Christine Turneabe Connelly, a Southwest spokeswoman. The airline planned to resume flights today, as did Continental and United.

US Airways, the second-busiest carrier at BWI, began flying a limited schedule at 3 p.m. yesterday but was unsure how long it would take to get back up to speed.

Back in business yesterday, BWI bore little resemblance to itself for most of the day. Only about a dozen of the 750 daily flights normally handled by the airport arrived or departed.

Even before passengers entered the terminal, they could see the region's busiest airport was a different place.

Workers removed all skycap check-in counters. Maryland Transportation Authority Police patrolled the curbs on the upper and lower decks, warning drivers dropping off travelers to make the goodbyes quick.

"Kick the people out, throw the bags on the curb, and take off," said Officer Jeremy Birchfield, who was monitoring security with his dog, Reno. "Any longer than that, and you've been here too long."

Inside, ticket counters were draped in red, white and blue bunting. Police badges bore strips of black tape. And while shops and restaurants were open throughout the airport, traffic was scarce. At its worst, the US Airways ticket counter resembled the level of business at a Christmas holiday. But the longest check-in waits were about 20 minutes.

Under tough new airport security rules, U.S. marshals and federal customs agents roamed the terminals, where at least one armed guard stood at each security gate. Security checkpoints, where carry-on items and passengers are screened, were opened only periodically and then only to passengers holding tickets.

Questions from security officers were swift and no-nonsense: What's in the bags?

Guards combed through suitcases, spilling clothes and soap, toothbrushes and socks onto tables, checking each piece with rubber gloves. Once-innocuous household items such as scissors, razors and pocket knives were now considered dangerous objects, prohibited from being carried on flights. Five dogs assisted with sniffing out potentially suspicious luggage.

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