An intrepid few take the first flight out of BWI

Terrorism Strikes America

Returning To The Skies

September 14, 2001|By Stephen Kiehl | Stephen Kiehl,SUN STAFF

ATLANTA - On Delta Flight 731 to Atlanta - the first passenger plane out of Baltimore-Washington International Airport since Tuesday's terrorist attacks - pilots and flight attendants carefully avoided mentioning what was on everyone's mind.

But the rows of empty blue seats said it all.

This flight, according to Delta, had been overbooked with reservations from people marooned in Maryland since the Federal Aviation Administration shut down the nation's airports Tuesday.

Yet when the Boeing 757 took off at 4:22 p.m., only 35 people were on board a plane that seats 186. And their mood was somber. Some prayed, others held hands.

"I'm not surprised," said Eric Hammond, 57, a mechanical engineer heading home to Fort Lauderdale, Fla. "It's going to take a while for a lot of people to fly again. I don't know when I'll fly again."

For Hammond and the others on board, a desire to get home overcame their fears. So they ran a gantlet of television news cameras and security officers, some using metal-detecting wands and bomb-sniffing dogs, to get to gate C-10.

Although BWI's piers are usually jammed with business travelers and tourists on a weekday afternoon, Pier C was nearly empty, shops closed, desks at the gates vacant. A newsstand was open, but it offered only Tuesday morning's papers - one featuring an article on shark attacks, which not too long ago seemed the greatest threat to American shores.

The eerie calm was the result of the gradual rescheduling of flights, as well as new security regulations. Delta was the first airline to resume service at BWI; others, including Southwest and Continental, planned to start flying today.

Under new federal regulations, only passengers with tickets were allowed to pass through security checkpoints and walk to the gates.

Passengers were asked several new questions as they checked in. Do you have any hazardous materials in your luggage? Are you carrying any knives, blades or sharp objects?

Most passengers said they passed through security checks without any problems. Some had taken precautions. Hammond said he left his key chain pocket knife at his Baltimore hotel, where he was attending a seminar.

K. Carpenter, 61, left her Swiss Army knife with her brother in Washington. Last week, traveling east from Salt Lake City, she carried the knife onto her plane with no problem. Yesterday, she wasn't taking any chances.

When Juanita McDonough, 45, a nurse from Tucson, Ariz., checked in at the Delta counter, an agent opened her suitcase, unrolled her clothing and checked the bag's lining. "I was so appreciative. I kept saying, `Thank you. Thank you.' There's no sense of invasion, just appreciation."

She admitted feeling some apprehension about flying. As the plane was taxiing for takeoff, she said, "I'm nervous, but I want to go home."

As the plane took off, she reached across an empty seat and held the hand of a new friend. Others bowed their heads and clasped their hands in prayer. A few shut their eyes tight - against whatever was to come. Others read books and newspapers, content to add more miles to their frequent flyer accounts.

"This seems like the safest day ever to fly," said Stephanie Schoen, 23, of Chantilly, Va. She was on her way to Portland, Ore., for a house-hunting trip. "I thought about how we'd have a full tank of fuel for the flight from Atlanta to Portland. But we want people to know we're not scaredy-cats."

She, too, was appreciative of the heightened security, even though it meant parting with a disposable razor. Security officers saw the razor when taking X-rays of her carry-on bag and told her she had to get rid of it. Her boyfriend, Nicholas Zander, 23, also had to throw away his razor blades.

"It's not too much to ask, really," he said.

Several passengers admitted feeling more than apprehension - suspicion. At the gate and on board, they scanned the faces of fellow fliers and wondered who these strangers were.

"You walk through the airport and you look at people differently," Hammond said somewhere over the Carolinas. "You sit here and wonder what might happen, and if any [hijackers] are on this plane."

They weren't.

In fact, Flight 731 encountered little turbulence of any kind on what would have been a beautiful day to fly, if it hadn't been darkened by Tuesday's events.

"It's something we'll never take for granted anymore," Carpenter said. She looked out the window and added, "It feels pretty lonely up here today."

The short flight featured CNN's in-flight news report, including segments on Internet crime and the bobble-head souvenir dolls that are so popular as stadium promotions. There was no mention of the four planes that were hijacked - and crashed - this week.

The plane touched down at Hartsfield International Airport at 5:42 p.m. - about 20 minutes early - and rolled to a stop. "Ladies and gentlemen," the pilot said, "welcome to Atlanta."

There was a smattering of whistles and applause. Most people quickly filed out, their worries now focused on making their connecting flights.

But one man stopped and extended his hand to the pilot. "Great job," the man said. "Great job."

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