Relief in Sight for Stranded Passengers as US Opens Airspace
Relief was at last in sight Thursday for hundreds of thousands of passengers stranded worldwide as US airports prepared to crank back into action two days after the devastating terrorist attacks on New York and Washington.
The US was fully reopening its airspace Thursday, but under tough new anti-terrorism rules, authorities said.
Flights, grounded since hijackers flew fuel-laden passenger planes into the World Trade Center and Pentagon on Tuesday, were set to resume at 11:00 am (1500 GMT), said Transportation Secretary Norman Mineta.
But the colossal task of switching back on the US civil air transport system, which carries 1.6 million people on a normal day with 36,000 to 40,000 departures, would take time, he said.
Airlines said they were resuming diverted flights first, and it would take days to recover full scheduled operations.
"We will reopen airports and resume flights on a case-by-case basis, only after they implement our more stringent levels of security," the US transport chief said.
The new rules, many kept under wraps for security reasons, include:
-- A total ban on passengers carrying aboard any cutting implements such as scissors or knives of any material or size. The terrorists used knives, not guns, in their attacks. Previously, only knives with blades longer than four inches (10 centimeters) were barred.
-- A thorough search and security check of all airplanes and airports before passengers are allowed to board.
- A discontinuation of baggage check-ins at any place besides the airport ticket counters.
- A reservation of boarding areas for passengers only. Only ticketed passengers will be allowed to proceed past airport screeners to catch their flights.
US airspace was closed at 1325 GMT Tuesday for the first time in the country's history.
Mineta had planned to resume flights 23 hours earlier. But the plan was scrapped following intelligence from the FBI and other agencies and after a National Security Council meeting chaired by President George W. Bush.
The American Airlines group, the world's biggest airline, said it would resume limited scheduled American Airlines, American Eagle and TWA flights no sooner than 2000 GMT.
"We expect the return of our full schedule of service to take several days," the airline said in a statement.
United Airlines confirmed in a statement that two diverted international flights had completed their trips in the morning but scheduled operations would not begin before 2300 GMT.
Delta Airlines said it would run "very limited" operations after 1600 GMT, with the priority on completing diverted flights, including some inbound flights that halted in Canada.
"We expect the return our full schedule of service to take a number of days," it added.
US authorities plan to draft in elite Delta Force commandos to help protect civilian planes, Mineta added.
"We are asking for expeditious treatment and action by the Department of Defense to give us some Delta Force folks," he told a news conference.
Mineta said other government agents were being deployed to reinforce security at airports.
Outside the US, the air traffic situation was also slowly easing.
Britain's temporary ban on planes flying low over central London was set to be lifted from midnight on Saturday.
The small City Airport in east London, near the capital's financial district, was due to open again Friday after having been closed since Tuesday.
Alitalia announced Thursday that it would be resuming flights from Italy to the US -- limited to New York for the present.
A flight was due to leave Rome for the stricken US city at 1530GMT, but the airline was unable to say whether there would be any other flights in the immediate future.
Swissair announced that three of its planes were taking off Thursday afternoon for New York and San Francisco. The flights out of Zurich were timed for 1420, 1500 and 1625 GMT.
Air Portugal was also due to resume flights from Lisbon to New York's JFK airport at 1400 GMT with 130 passengers on board, said a spokesman Thursday afternoon.
In Paris, Air France had been planning to clear three flights to the US Thursday afternoon, but these were cancelled "following new security measures taken by the US civil authorities".
Meanwhile, airlines in Beijing have been besieged by requests from stranded Americans on how to get out of China and chaos has reigned in local hotels.
"We are hoping that our first flights from Asia can depart on September 15 pending US government approval, but everything is extremely fluid," John Watkins, general manager for Northwest Airlines' office in Beijing, told AFP.
At Tokyo's Narita international airport, 195 incoming and US-bound flights were cancelled Thursday -- about half the total number of daily flights.
In Hong Kong a total of 30 incoming and outgoing flights were cancelled, affecting some 3,700 passengers waiting to leave the territory, many of them in transit. Cargo traffic was also suspended.
South Korea's two airline companies -- Korean Air and Asiana Airlines -- cancelled flights to the US for the third straight day.
Scandinavian Airlines Systems (SAS) has stopped all flights to the US since the closure of US airspace on Tuesday – PARIS (AFP)
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