- The Washington Times - Friday, December 26, 2003

Travelers using Washington-area airports over the Christmas holiday appeared unfazed by warnings of a terrorist threat, as airlines reported solid bookings despite tight security imposed after the Code Orange terrorism alert announced Sunday.

Department of Homeland Security officials said they raised the terror alert to the second-highest level after intelligence reports indicated terrorists might try to hijack a foreign airliner for an attack on the United States during the Christmas holiday.

Nevertheless, “We’ve seen very good load factors,” said Jeff Green, United Airlines spokesman. “From what we can tell so far, there’s not been any drop-off in our travel.”

The airline’s planes were operating this week about 85 percent to 87 percent full with passengers, compared with 75 percent last month. The passenger loads are typical for a Christmas season, Mr. Green said.

The Transportation Security Administration last week alerted airlines to strict security procedures for holiday travel.

“I know it’s tight,” Mr. Green said, referring to the level of security.

The procedures include random car searches and more thorough screening of passengers and baggage at airport checkpoints.

About 977,000 Washington-area residents are traveling during the Christmas holiday, according to AAA. About 81 percent are driving. Most of the rest are flying.

Other airlines also said their passengers seemed undeterred by security concerns.

“We’re not seeing any significant impact,” said Amy Kudwa, US Airways spokeswoman.

Officials for the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority, which manages Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport and Washington Dulles International Airport, said delays of passengers or airplanes were not a significant issue.

Lines at security checkpoints were slightly longer than usual the day before Christmas, but dropped off to normal levels the next day.

“It didn’t seem to be a problem,” said Tara Hamilton, spokeswoman for the airports authority. “They were long, but they were moving.”

The Homeland Security Department continues to say credible evidence indicates al Qaeda seeks methods to attack American interests.

The most recent warnings focus on Air France flights to the Los Angeles area, which the al Qaeda “chatter” monitored by U.S. intelligence agents indicated is a likely target. Air France flights to Los Angeles were canceled on Wednesday and Thursday but resumed yesterday.

Air France officials dispute American security concerns.

Homeland Security officials also ordered more sensors of biological, chemical and radiological weapons installed in urban areas in response to terrorism threats.

At Baltimore-Washington International Airport, most vehicles passed by a lone squad car conducting random vehicle checks at the airport’s entrance without getting stopped.

Robert Freeman, 42, of St. Louis, said he was surprised there weren’t more visible security measures taken.

“All you hear is more security,” he said. “I’m sure they’re doing what they have to do, but they sure aren’t advertising it.”

Inside the BWI terminal, Colleen Cornell was headed home to North Carolina with her 11-year-old daughter.

“We left extra early because we figured that, between the security and the holiday, everything would be backed up,” she said. “So far, we haven’t had to wait much at all.”

At Dulles, an airport authority police officer with a bullhorn prodded standing cars not to linger on the roadway in front of the airport. Inside the terminal, an officer calmly watched the crowd with his dog at his side.

Two security checkpoints processed passengers, some of whom complained of delays.

“The terrorist alerts are just something we live with now,” said Claire Spellman, 28, of Columbus, Ohio, as she waited at one of the checkpoints. “I never would have given a second thought to traveling today because of that. But if I’d known how long the lines would be today, I might have changed my plans.”

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