Despite worries over impending war with Iraq, business goes on as usual for travelers at BWI

March 19, 2003|By Rona Kobell | Rona Kobell,SUN STAFF

Except for a few groups of soldiers pushing carts full of green and black duffel bags bound for undisclosed locations in the Middle East, traffic at Baltimore-Washington International Airport yesterday was about normal for a Tuesday.

A high school class prepared for its return to St. Louis after a week in Washington. A husband read a newsmagazine about the war as he waited for his wife to return from a trip to the West Coast. A father waited to board a flight to see his family for the first time in three weeks.

"I'm not worried at all," said John Maher, an air traffic controller who relocated to Quantico, Va., recently and was at BWI yesterday awaiting a flight to New Hampshire to visit his family. "It might have something to do with the job I have. I'm in the aviation field, so it doesn't really bother me."

Airline officials said they received a few calls from people seeking to cancel or change flights due to President Bush's recent announcement and the impending war. Some airlines are relaxing policies in case travelers cancel.

At Southwest Airlines -- BWI's largest carrier -- passengers can reuse tickets for up to a year. American Airlines spokesman Todd Burke said his airline will allow a one-time change to flight plans in the event of war or a Homeland Security code red alert this month.

Representatives from Air Jamaica, Iceland Air, Ghana Airways and Aer Lingus also reported few cancellations yesterday.

That travel is continuing normally doesn't surprise David Stempler, president of the Air Travelers Association. But he said major cities, particularly New York and Washington, may see a drop in tourists with the heightened threat level.

The airline industry expects a 15 percent drop in travel should war begin, which would cost the already cash-strapped airlines about $4 billion, according to the Air Transport Association.

Yesterday, passengers couldn't get away from reminders of the conflict. In the lounge, six teen-agers in oversized shirts played spades before a flight to Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio for basic training. They went on active duty yesterday.

"I ain't going to lie. I'm a little nervous," said Kenneth Clark, of Suitland.

Passengers may notice a slight increase in airport security. BWI has been conducting vehicle searches and screening checked and carry-on bags. In the next few weeks, more police and police dogs will be in the terminal.

Security was also heightened at other areas. A fleet of Ford Expeditions is serving as a roving checkpoint for Maryland Transportation Authority Police to patrol and search vehicles crossing the Bay Bridge.

Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley held a news conference yesterday with top officials to discuss security. He said that he spoke with federal officials and other mayors.

"Right now there is no specific information about [threats to] Baltimore," O'Malley said. "But we've got to be ready for anything."

Sun staff writers Tom Pelton, Stephen Kiehl and Julie Bykowicz contributed to this article.

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