New Orleans Airport Reopens Today, but Barely

New Orleans's airport is cleaner now, post-Katrina, but still nearly empty.
New Orleans's airport is cleaner now, post-Katrina, but still nearly empty. (By Steven Senne -- Associated Press)

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By Keith L. Alexander
Tuesday, September 13, 2005

KENNER, La. Roy Williams, director of the Louis Armstrong New Orleans International Airport, spent most of yesterday talking with the media. Between interviews, Williams checked his e-mail and cell phone in hopes of learning which airlines might resume service at the nation's 41st-largest airport.

Armstrong International, located 20 minutes from downtown New Orleans, officially reopens for regular passenger service today. But it will handle only two flights to and from Memphis, courtesy of Northwest Airlines. Delta Air Lines said last night it would resume limited service on Friday but offered no details. The airport normally has about 350 flights a day. But with the loss of convention business and vacationers, Williams doesn't think the airport will resume full operations for nearly 18 months.

Some people in his office, he says, are betting it will take as much as five years before the airport is back to normal.

"So many conventions and business meetings are going to go to other cities next year. Many people are going to be concerned about coming here and go elsewhere for a while," Williams said. "But we're ready."

Yesterday, representatives from several airlines surveyed conditions to determine when -- or if -- they should resume service. The airlines included Southwest, Delta and Northwest. Southwest is the airport's dominant carrier, with 57 flights a day. In a typical year, some 10 million travelers pass through the airport. Now, military workers and cleaning crews dominate the terminals. The arrival and departure monitors were flashing the word "testing" next to the airlines' names in the spots that would have normally shown flight times and gate numbers.

Southwest project manager Mark Petteway said he was surprised that the ticket counters "looked pretty good." Still, Southwest spokeswoman Ginger Hardage said the airline was not accepting any passenger reservations to New Orleans and does not have an expected date when service would resume.

Some visitors said they were surprised by the airport's relatively good condition, considering that it became home to as many as 13,000 evacuees who slept on floors, chairs and any other available spots. Williams has slept in his office for the past two weeks. The American Red Cross and the U.S. Forest Service have looked after the residents and provided meals. The ticket counters of JetBlue, Continental and Delta became makeshift medical triage locations for evacuees -- and even their pets, thanks to the American Veterinary Medical Association. Most evacuees have been transported to shelters elsewhere, but the airport is still a command center for the Army, Air Force and Marines. Military tents have gone up on the airport's long-term parking lots. Williams said many soldiers were being sent to other posts in the city.

At its worst, the terminal was knee-high in trash and debris and looked like Bourbon Street during Mardi Gras, some residents said. Durrell Osbourn, a 48-year-old construction worker who was making about $25,000 a year before Katrina hit, is working 12-hour shifts cleaning the airport for $7 an hour. Osbourn, whose house was flooded, has been living in the terminal. "It's been tough, but things are looking and smelling a lot better," he said.

Transportation Security Administration screeners were at the airport yesterday testing their screening machines and metal detectors. Some windows were still blown out, and part of the roof had vanished near the main concourse, leaving a hole like a large skylight. In stores, the Aug. 26 weekend edition of USA Today was still on display. The front page carried a small mention of Hurricane Katrina blowing into South Florida, but the far bigger story was Martha Stewart's comeback.

Stephanie Walker, director of operations for Hudson News, which manages 15 of the airport's 26 newspaper and souvenir shops, said many stores suffered water and structural damage. She said she hopes to have some employees ready to work in the next few days.

By Thursday, the airport plans to have one gift shop and one fast-food restaurant open. Walker said the city's commerce depended on travelers and goods coming through the airport.

"We're just trying to do the best we can to help rebuild New Orleans," she said. "It's not easy, but we have this city [that] depends on us."


© 2005 The Washington Post Company

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