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Need for security, procedural changes keeping Kenai airport closed -- for now

Crisis keeps Alaska planes on ground

Posted: Thursday, September 13, 2001

Plans are up in the air, but the planes aren't.

The Federal Aviation Admini-stration postponed plans to reopen the nation's airways Wednesday. The delay has Kenai Municipal Airport officials in suspense.

Wednesday afternoon, Era Aviation, the commercial carrier servicing Kenai, announced that its planes will remain on the ground at least until Friday. Staff will be available at the airport today to help people change reservations.

Judy Erikson, the Era Aviation station manager, said "If people will just bear with us, we are doing the best we can."

Throughout the day she and Airport Manager Becky Cronkhite were involved in a series of meetings and teleconferences about security, new rules and the resumption of air traffic.

"We do anticipate changes," Cronkhite said Wednesday afternoon. "We don't have a final directive as to how extensively the Kenai airport will be affected by those changes."

On a national level, travelers will see major changes.

Transportation Secretary Norman Mineta told reporters he could give neither a time nor a date for full resumption of air service, which was suspended after Tuesday's terrorist attacks in New York and at the Pentagon. He said it was decided to indefinitely postpone full restoration of service after aviation officials discussed security problems with the FBI and intelligence agencies.

Mineta did say passengers stranded in flights would be allowed to fly to their original destinations. But the general grounding of flights continues.

When asked when normalcy would return to the air, Mineta replied: ''I can't give you a date or time as to when we will be back in operation. We're trying to make that determination based on the safety and the security of the airline passengers.''

Mineta noted that officials had hoped to accomplish that by midday Wednesday but said that after hearing misgivings about safety from FBI and intelligence officials, ''the determination was made to put off operations until we are sufficiently secure in our own information about when to resume operations.''

Whenever travel does resume, passengers will find security at its highest level since the Persian Gulf War in 1991. For example, according to transportation, airline and airport officials:

n Curbside or off-airport check-ins will be eliminated.

n Passengers will be met at the security screening stations rather than at the airport gates. Only ticketed passengers will be allowed through the checkpoints.

n Passengers will no longer be able to bring any knives or cutting tools aboard planes.

n The presence of federal air marshals and airport police will increase.

n Physical checks on passengers will increase.

n Airport security personnel will have to meet higher standards.

One concern is that some new rules proposed may not be practical for small rural airports in Alaska. Aviation officials are discussing how much will apply to places like Kenai, Cronkhite said.

Security changes have already been made at the Kenai Municipal Airport, but the details are not public.

One change travelers are likely to notice when the airport reopens will be stricter enforcement of parking rules. Cronkhite recommends that people pay close attention to the posted instructions.

There is a possibility that a metal detector may be in the cards for Kenai as well, she said.

The requirements for the airlines will also be more stringent, but Erikson said Era is up to the task, and the proposed new airline security measures under consideration are feasible for the carrier.

On the state level, Alaskans are negotiating with the feds about reopening airspace because of the state's unique dependence on air travel.

Joette Storm, the community relations manager for the FAA in the Alaska region, said the decision is up to Mineta and cannot be made by state-level authorities.

Her agency is discussing the matter with the governor's office and with military authorities, she said.

One priority is retrieving stranded hunters from remote areas. Officials are compiling lists of how many are affected and working on arrangements with North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) to allow small aircraft to go out for that purpose.

"The general ban has not been lifted," Storm stressed.

Back in Kenai, Cronkhite said that her facility will do whatever is required. The focus will be on safety, and she is asking for public support for new measures.

"We hope you will be good sports about it," she said.

The Associated Press contributed to this story.



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