Alaska airports take steps to reopen

Posted: Friday, September 14, 2001

ANCHORAGE (AP) -- Alaska's airports took small steps toward returning to full operations Thursday with the departure of stranded flights, the resumption of limited commercial flights and the go-ahead for private aircraft to take to the skies.

The Federal Aviation Administration shut down all flying in the country Tuesday after four commercial airliners were hijacked and used in attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. Except for exceptions granted for medical flights, only military and law enforcement flying was permitted.

Acknowledging Alaska's special flying needs, the Federal Aviation Administration permitted all forms of aviation operations Thursday in the state. In the Lower 48 and Canada, only commercial operations were permitted. The exception for Alaska meant private planes, air taxis and charters could start retrieving hunters and resupplying rural communities.

Just five Alaska airports remained closed as of Thursday morning but by afternoon all had been recertified to open by the FAA's Civil Aviation Security Division.

The first commercial flight out of Ted Stevens Anchorage International Airport was a Continental Airlines international flight. The jet, diverted Tuesday from its Tokyo-to-Newark route, left about 7:30 a.m., said acting airport manager Corky Caldwell.

Caldwell said his staff spent a busy day Wednesday obtaining certification to reopen under the new security rules.

''When the 'go' signal comes, we wanted to be ready,'' Caldwell said.

Caldwell said his day Thursday started at 4 a.m. with a couple hours of phone calls at home, coordinating the resumption of operations with the FAA, the airlines and other agencies.

''Restarting a national airline infrastructure, it's never been done before,'' Caldwell said.

When he reached the airport, he was dismayed to see some ticket counters were not staffed. He said he called airline representatives, urging them to have employees on hand to answer questions and aid passengers already stressed from flight cancellations.

Passengers lucky enough to board faced the new security measures. Among them: no curbside luggage service, no cutting instruments such as jackknives allowed on board, no electronic ticketing, random searches, and no one but passengers with tickets allowed past security checkpoints.

Airlines resumed flights on a limited basis. Alaska Airlines scheduled just nine flights out of Anchorage, three out of Fairbanks, two from Juneau and two from Ketchikan and Kotzebue.

Laura Sarcone and her family hoped to fly Wednesday to Portland, Ore., on board Alaska Airlines for a wedding. On Thursday, the family drove to the airport in hopes of finding space but were turned away. The soonest they could be guaranteed a seat: Wednesday, a day after they were scheduled to return.

''We're thinking about going to the Kenai Princess (Lodge) since we have the time off,'' she said.

Caldwell urged passengers not to show up at the airport unless they had tickets on board confirmed flights.

At Anchorage's international terminal, Condor Airlines passengers scheduled to fly to Germany on Tuesday were told their jet would arrive from Whitehorse, Yukon Territory, and they lined up for check-in Thursday morning. But at about 11 a.m., Condor representatives announced that the flight might not arrive.

John Nordstrom, an American and an airline employee living in Frankfurt, Germany, was hopeful but not optimistic. If the aircraft did not leave, ''We're back in Humpy's tonight,'' he said, referring to an Anchorage pub.

Antje Sommer, a German national visiting Alaska, said the attacks put a pall on her visit.

''It affects us a great deal,'' Sommer said. ''No matter what nationality you are, it's horrible.''

Alfred Schroeder and Mechthild Linden of Heidelberg, Germany, were wrapping up a three-week car camping trip and were among those in line. Their rental company let them keep their truck camper two extra days at no cost. However, Schroeder and Linden turned it in Thursday morning.

''Perhaps we will sleep on the floor here,'' Linden said with a smile.

FedEx Express said nearly 60 aircraft throughout the country were launched Thursday and the first priority would be given to moving medical supplies, emergency equipment and payroll-related shipments.

Air taxis began retrieving hunters who in some cases had been scheduled for pickup Tuesday.

Hunter Dan McClain, a pharmaceutical company employee from Hughesville, Pa., learned of the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon only when a pilot Rust's Flying Service arrived to take him back to the city. The pilot carried a newspaper with accounts of the attacks and McClain's first reaction was disbelief.

''You kind of look at it and it's like a fake newspaper,'' he said.

McClain and childhood friend Steve Sullivan, a 16-year resident of Cantwell, had just completed a week of caribou hunting at Whitefish Lake about 175 miles west of Anchorage. Rust's was to do a midweek check on the hunters but did not show up.

Sullivan, after unloading two caribou, said they had been seeing up to a dozen airplanes per day until Tuesday.

''We just couldn't figure it out why no one was flying,'' he said.

Regal Air retrieved Tony Grabiel of Wasilla and Patrick Peltier of Danbury, Texas, after a 70-mile float trip where they shot caribou and a black bear. Unlike many hunters, they carried a satellite telephone.

They reached their pickup point a day late and called the air taxi.

''I told them we were at the pickup point,'' Grabiel said. ''They told me they couldn't fly.'

''The worst part was not knowing what was going on at home,'' said Peltier, a rice farmer. ''I have a wife and three kids.''

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