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Stranded MSP travelers grow more frustrated
By Marisa Helms
Minnesota Public Radio
September 14, 2001

Northwest Airlines abruptly canceled all flights nationwide Thursday night, citing "external factors" and "security concerns on the East Coast." United and Continental followed Northwest's lead, also canceling flights. Airport spokespeople said all airlines intend to resume regular flights this Friday. For the thousands of travelers who came to Minneapolis St. Paul airport ready to leave Minnesota, it was another frustrating day in a very unusual week.

Don and Janet Stanley of Tucson, Ariz., prepared to sleep on cots at the Minneapolis-St. Paul airport Thursday night. They've been stranded in the Twin Cities since Tuesday, and ran out of money to stay at a hotel.
(MPR Photo/Marisa Helms)
Just minutes before the first Northwest flight was to take off from Minneapolis St. Paul, a voice came over the airport loudspeaker saying all Northwest flights had been canceled. Weary passengers, like Larry Gillam of Nashville, filed out of the terminal quickly and calmly, resigned to the impossibility of making it home.

"I just want to go home. I've been trying to get to Nashville for two days now," he said.

Northwest officials would only say the decision to cancel all passenger flights was based on "external information". At a news conference, Metropolitan Airports Commission Director of Security Jim Welna cited unspecific "security concerns on the East Coast" for Northwest's decision.

"I think we're in a very fluid situation nationwide, and depending upon what information comes up, and specific threats, we end up with decisions being made, and that's the choice they have to make," he said.

The airport did not close down entirely. Though United and Continental also canceled flights, Sun Country, Delta and US Air maintained a limited schedule. Still, Northwest handles about 80 percent of the flights out of Minneapolis-St. Paul, so the terminal nearly cleared of travelers after Northwest announced its further delay.

When most travelers were gone, Northwest crews were called back to their scheduled flights and headed into the terminal. Welna explained the airline would still be flying, just not with passengers.

"Northwest is doing some repositioning of flights during the night, so that's why you're seeing the crews going through the screening process," Welna said.

The cancellations came just after New York's major airports were shut down after a man carrying a false pilot's ID was arrested at Kennedy after trying to pass through security. Several more people were detained as part of that incident.

In Phoenix, meanwhile, three Northwest Airlines employees intentionally breached security at Sky Harbor International Airport to show the tighter security system still has gaps.

Two Northwest ground crew employees cleared the Sky Harbor checkpoint with a pocketknife and a corkscrew while a pilot passed without proper identification.

Northwest Airlines could not be reached for comment about the security breach. It's unclear what, if any, role the incident played in the decision to suspend operations.

Since the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington Tuesday, about 20 stranded passengers have been living on the mezzanine level of the Minneapolis St. Paul airport.

Don Stanley says he and his wife were staying in hotels the last couple of nights, but the money ran out, so like the others, he and his wife prepared to sleep on the mezzanine on cots provided by the airport.

"We came in from Tuscson, Arizona, on Saturday, just to spend a couple days up at Duluth Superior by the lake, and come back here on Monday and fly back out on Tuesday, but it backfired on us," Stanley said.

Don's wife, Janet, says she's running out of needed medication and is praying they'll make it home to Tucson by Friday night.