JUNEAU (AP) -- The Federal Aviation Administration has agreed to allow special clearance in Alaska for air taxi flights such as those used to pick up stranded hunters in remote sections of the state, a spokesman for Gov. Tony Knowles said.
The FAA's decision will allow most flights to Alaska's Bush to resume, Knowles' spokesman Bob King said Thursday. The change was expected to begin Thursday and comes as the nation's air transportation system begins ramping up following a nationwide grounding.
The action will allow air taxies to retrieve an estimated 600 to 800 hunters who had no way out of Alaska's Bush after the FAA imposed a nationwide grounding of all civilian and commercial air traffic in the wake of Tuesday's terrorist attacks on the East Coast.
''Certainly, we understand the reasons for the flight restrictions nationwide,'' King said. ''The governor appreciates the FAA's flexibility to address the special and unique conditions in Alaska.''
The decision came hours before Transportation Secretary Norman Y. Mineta opened the nation's airspace to limited commercial travel. Mineta said commercial and private flights were allowed to resume as of 8 a.m. Alaska Time as airports demonstrate higher levels of security in the wake of four terrorist hijackings of jetliners on Tuesday.
Some major airlines were expected to begin limited flight schedules Thursday. It wasn't immediately clear whether Alaska Airlines would resume flying on Thursday.
Immediately after Tuesday's attack, FAA officials were allowing lifesaving flights to be conducted around Alaska on a case-by-case basis, most involving military and Coast Guard craft. About 55 such flights involving search and rescue operations and medical evacuations had been conducted, state officials said.
Joette Storm, a spokeswoman with the FAA in Alaska, said her agency had been seeking approval of an exemption under the nationwide grounding for the state, where a large number of remote areas rely heavily on airplanes as a lifeline to other regions. That plan also required military approval.
''We are working on a plan that will give them some relief,'' Storm told The Associated Press late Wednesday. King announced the agreement at about 9 p.m.
Some Bush pilots had said their clients are prepared to spend additional days in the Bush due to inclement weather. But they had feared that extended delays may put them at risk.
''These guys are prepared to be weathered in for a while, but not for days and days on end,'' said Willis Thayer, who works for Rust's Flying Service in Anchorage. Thayer said by Thursday 31 clients were expected to be overdue to be picked up.
State officials again raised the concern on Wednesday during a briefing of the State Emergency Coordination Center, which has been staffed around the clock since after Tuesday's attack.
''That's a big concern and of course there's a potential of compounding the problem,'' said Wayne Rush, emergency manager with the Alaska Division of Emergency Services. State officials feared that in some instances sportsmen who had been in the field for several days may be low on food or medication.
Nick Karnos, manager of Ketchum Air Service, said by Thursday that air service would have 26 clients on unguided hunting and fishing trips overdue to be picked up.
''If you get into four or five days, our system gets to be overwhelmed,'' Karnos said.
Clients with Ketchum generally take seven- to 21-day trips into the Mulchatna River corridor west of the Alaska Range, about 200 miles west of Anchorage, Karnos said.
He said pilots had been frustrated by their inability to get to the sportsmen stranded in the Bush.
''I don't think anything we do here poses any type of even minimal threat,'' Karnos said.
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