Commercial airlines joining in relief effort

25,000 to be airlifted from New Orleans over next several days

Katrina's Wake

September 03, 2005|By Meredith Cohn | Meredith Cohn,SUN STAFF

A dozen commercial airlines began humanitarian flights from New Orleans yesterday to ferry 25,000 of the storm-ravaged city's residents to neighboring states in the coming days under a plan coordinated by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and the airline's trade association.

The New Orleans airport has been closed since Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast on Monday and still has no electricity, but the airlines began arriving with supplies and law enforcement officials before flying storm refugees from the region.

James C. May, president of the Air Transport Association, called the volunteer plan - named "Operation Air Care" - an unprecedented effort by airlines to move civilians in need.

The plan was crafted Thursday night, and Delta Air Lines flew the first flight to Louis Armstrong New Orleans International Airport at 8 a.m. yesterday. The airlines are transporting passengers to sites designated by the Federal Emergency Management Agency, including Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio.

Airlines include Alaska, America West, American, ATA, Continental, Delta, JetBlue, Northwest, Southwest, United, US Airways and Air Canada. Cargo carriers providing support are ASTAR Air Cargo, Federal Express and UPS Airlines. AirTran Airways also has partnered with two local radio stations to bring donated supplies to the Gulfport-Biloxi airport.

In addition, buses, trucks and an Amtrak train are being used to transport storm victims to shelters out of state.

Southwest Airlines, one of New Orleans' largest carriers, has canceled more than 640 commercial flights to the Gulf region, but its second shipment of food, water and law enforcement officials had taken off from the carrier's Dallas headquarters by 11:30 a.m. yesterday.

The airline had already flown dozens of its employees, their families and pets to Houston and Dallas, where they checked into hotels. A Southwest spokeswoman said she believes all of the carrier's workers are accounted for, although officials have not specifically heard from each of them.

"We took a flight in two days ago and got the last of people stranded there from the beginning," said Paula Berg, a Southwest spokeswoman in Dallas. "Now we're getting other people making their way to the airport. ... We understand that the airport does have some power and air conditioning, but the condition of the people is pretty rough."

Federal officials couldn't immediately say how long the flights would continue. A Department of Transportation spokesman said the airlines would eventually be reimbursed under a federal program that allows the government to seek aid from private companies during emergencies. Brian Turmail, the spokesman, said there were no cost estimates. The program has reimbursed truckers for work during past hurricanes, but he couldn't recall airplanes being used for such a purpose.

Transportation officials said the airlift plan took until yesterday to get under way because the airport is without power, and generators had to be brought in. Temporary lights had to be set up on two runways, which also had to be cleared of debris, and an emergency control tower had to be established. Airlines were told to bring all the fuel they need for their flights - four an hour, 24 hours a day.

The Federal Aviation Administration still lists the airport, as well as the Gulfport-Biloxi airport, as open only for relief efforts. Nine others are either closed or only open for flights during daylight because of poor conditions at the airports.

The agency also said in a statement that the jet fuel supply has been strained since the hurricane knocked some oil production, refining and pipeline operations offline. But the FAA said fuel supplies were sufficient to keep all commercial flights going.

The Air Transport Association has said, however, that Katrina has caused record jet fuel prices to rise another 20 percent.

But yesterday, the airlines said they would provide planes, tickets and other help as long as they are needed for relief efforts.

"The employees of US Airways are committed to doing everything they possibly can to help those who are suffering as a result of this catastrophe, volunteering their time, job skills and resources," said Bruce R. Lakefield, the carrier's president and chief executive, in a statement. "We are ready and willing to assist in the relief efforts."

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