- The Washington Times - Saturday, December 29, 2001

Airplanes are running about 85 percent full this holiday season, about the same passenger load level as last Christmas, airlines reported yesterday.
Although major airlines are operating about 20 percent fewer flights than they were a year ago, the strong holiday bookings show they are regaining customers lost after the September 11 attacks and a lingering recession.
"We are very optimistic that by the end of our holiday travel season, which is January 2, the numbers will be what we expect them to be for this time of year," said Emilio Howell, spokesman for American Airlines.
Other airlines reported similar results.
"We've had a really good Christmas and New Year's season so far," said Joe Hopkins, spokesman for United Airlines. "We've had a number of days over the Christmas season in which we carried 200,000."
Last year, United carried a daily average of about 231,000 passengers. The passenger load was cut in half after September 11 and has been climbing since then.
Continental Airlines also reported healthy traffic. "Our holiday bookings were strong," spokeswoman Julie King said. "We anticipated similar load factors to last year."
Nevertheless, cash-strapped America West Airlines, the first carrier to file for government help after the attacks, received conditional approval yesterday for federal support that may fend off bankruptcy.
Nationwide, airlines said they carried more than 2 million passengers Wednesday and Thursday. Passenger traffic slowed slightly yesterday because many travelers already had returned home from their Christmas trips, airline representatives said.
Airlines had feared many travelers would stay away from planes, but several major carriers said planes were 90 percent full at their peak about as packed as jetliners ever get and better than the 85 percent forecast by the Air Transport Association, the industry's Washington-based trade group.
For the week ended Thursday, passenger volumes were down roughly 11 percent from a year ago, said David Swerienga, the group's chief economist. That's better than the 17 percent decline the industry was predicting for the last two weeks of December and the first week of January.
While other carriers have been picking up customers, America West was the first airline to ask the federal government for financial help.
The Air Transportation Stabilization Board voted to grant conditional approval for $380 million in loans the airline sought under a $10 billion package of loan guarantees passed by Congress after the hijackings.
Under terms of the deal, the government would repay up to $380 million of $445 million in loans America West has negotiated contingent on government backing.
More than $600 million in concessions from America West suppliers and creditors hinged on government approval.
A denial of the loan guarantees could have been a severe blow for the cash-strapped airline.
This Christmas travel season began with a bomb scare when, on Dec. 22, a man aboard an American Airlines flight from Paris to Miami tried to ignite explosives hidden in his shoes. Flight attendants and passengers subdued the man before he could light a fuse. He is awaiting trial in Boston.
The incident prompted an emergency directive from the Federal Aviation Administration requiring random searches of passengers' shoes.
Although the bomb scare alarmed many passengers, airlines say it has had little effect on their bookings.
"Customers are returning to the airplanes," said Brandy King, Southwest Airlines spokeswoman. "On the whole, customers have been understanding of the security policies because they know it's in their best interest."
Many passengers at Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport yesterday expressed similar sentiments, even when their waits were lengthened when screeners told a few of them to remove their shoes for closer inspection.
"I think it's a good measure," said 17-year-old Emilio Amestica, a Chilean who was visiting family members in Herndon during Christmas. "It's safer."
In one half-hour span yesterday at an American Airlines gate, four of nearly 100 passengers were ordered to remove their shoes. However, screeners ran cloth swabs over the heels of passengers' shoes more often to search for explosives.
A gate attendant explained yesterday that screeners generally looked for shoes big enough to hide something, such as boots with large heels. The shoes are sent through an X-ray machine and visually inspected.
"At this moment, you need to do that kind of thing," said Marcela Biron, a Rockville resident who was saying goodbye to her daughter, stepson and granddaughter as they left for a Latin American vacation. "I'm concerned," she said.
Her concerns were not shared by Dominic Sale, a Washington resident leaving for a vacation in Costa Rica.
"I think it's just overreaction," Mr. Sale said. "I think it's ridiculous to take off your shoes. Next we'll be strip-searched."
Other delays during the holiday travel season seemed routine.
A water-main break near Baltimore-Washington International Airport early yesterday briefly closed the only road leading to the terminal building.
Other airport delays were attributed to weather, including record snowfall that closed the Buffalo, N.Y., airport.
This article is based in part on wire service reports.

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