Friday, September 13, 2002

Flying Right

One year after the terrorist attacks, Memphis International is getting back to normal.

Posted By on Fri, Sep 13, 2002 at 4:00 AM

No one is more eager than Larry Cox to see things get back to normal at Memphis International Airport.

The head of the Memphis and Shelby County Airport Authority cringed a little bit when a visitor asked him this week about a national newspaper report that airline passengers at some of the bigger airports are seen as potential terrorists instead of customers.

"If we ever get to that point, then we might as well fold the terminal up," said Cox, who was fielding several interview requests on the eve of the anniversary of the terrorist attacks.

Cox is blunt in his assessment of the screening procedures of airlines and airport security personnel.

"People want better security, but they want it to be common sense," he said.

The reports of a nursing mother required to drink her own breast milk, a man in a wheelchair painfully lifted from his seat, or people standing in line for two hours while grandmothers and grandfathers remove their shoes rile him as much as they do the average traveler. A "trusted traveler card" or something similar may be in the offing, Cox predicted.

"The whole purpose of air travel is to reduce time," he said. "We can't start to go the other way" by increasing delays at the terminal beyond a certain point, particularly at some of the larger airports that connect to Memphis.

Since June, Northwest Airlines has reinstated most of the flights it lopped off after the attacks, and passengers without checked luggage on domestic flights can safely arrive an hour or even half an hour before departure, Cox said. With 123 large jets and 153 regional jets operating out of Memphis, Northwest is "almost precisely where they were before," he said.

Overall passenger loads in Memphis, however, are down about 9 percent from a year ago. Cox expects United Airlines to go into bankruptcy this month. The airline operates just six regional United Express jets from Memphis. U.S. Airways has basically gone to all regional jets here as well.

Some of the more visible airport-security measures have been or are about to be eliminated. The fatigue-clad and gun-toting National Guard soldiers have been gone since May, and the ban against parking within 300 feet of the terminal will be lifted later this year.

Other heightened security measures are probably permanent, even if they are less obvious.

"We never saw an air marshal in Memphis until last year, and now we see them all the time," said Cox.

The federal government is now totally in charge of security, although it will not have all of its own employees deployed until November. The machine that scans all checked luggage for explosives, which was going to be added even before 9/11, should be used on all bags by the end of the year. Only ticketed passengers with boarding passes are allowed in the concourses. All passengers are screened at least twice, and carry-on bags are examined more thoroughly.

Cox said the biggest potential delay in the system, apart from another terrorist attack, is working out the kinks in the laborious process of matching all bags to passengers. Not all airlines or airports are computerized, as Northwest is.

There have been no security breaches at the Memphis airport, although "we have been catching people with pocket knives, knitting needles, and the occasional gun in their luggage for 30 years," Cox said. Nor have there been any specific security warnings directed to Memphis. Cox believes Memphis is "not likely to be a threat from the passenger side."

On the freight side, FedEx is logging 2,335 flights a week in and out of Memphis, compared to 2,261 a year ago, according to the company. A spokesman said the company has boosted security provisions at the airport but declined to discuss them. The company did reinstitute its jump-seat policy last month after suspending it as a security precaution a year ago. There are no new guidelines for customers as to what can and cannot be shipped. The company said it already had strict procedures in place before 9/11.

FedEx received a total of $101 million from the federal Department of Transportation for disruption to its global services last September. Among other freight carriers, UPS got $51 million, while passenger carrier Northwest Airlines got $405 million.

In a local footnote to 9/11, the Federal Aviation Administration will honor the personnel of the two control towers in Memphis this week for playing a significant role in getting airborne planes safely on the ground after the government shut down the system. By virtue of its geographic location and four runways, Memphis tied with Indianapolis for the most planes diverted (45) from scheduled destinations.

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