Airlines Begin New Orleans Airlift

9-2-05 - The nation's major airlines said Friday they have begun flights designed to airlift more than to 25,000 people stranded in New Orleans by Hurricane Katrina.

The evacuees will be taken to Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio and other sites picked by the Federal Emergency Management Agency, officials said.

The airlift was organized by the Air Transport Association, a trade group for the major carriers, after several carriers began plans to conduct their own mercy flights.

"This extraordinary civilian airlift is unprecedented in U.S. history, and is a shining example of how America can come together to help those in need," said James C. May, president of the trade group.

Participating airlines include Alaska, America West, American, ATA, Continental, Delta, JetBlue, Northwest, Southwest, United, US Airways, and Air Canada. Several cargo carriers are also taking part.

The mission would be styled after a program in which the military uses commercial airliners to transport troops.

While airlines said they were willing to fly airlifts, they want the government to pay the cost of the operation. The nation's major airlines have lost billions since the recession and terror attacks of 2001. Fort Worth-based AMR Corp., the parent of American, the nation's largest carrier, has lost more than $7 billion.

Thousands of people remained marooned in New Orleans on Friday, five days after Hurricane Katrina and the failure of levees resulted in widespread flooding. Evacuations by bus to sites such as Houston's Astrodome have been slow.

Even before Friday's announcement, Southwest Airlines Co. dispatched a Boeing 737 from Dallas to New Orleans just before noon on Friday, according to airline spokeswoman Paula Berg. She said the plane would take evacuees to Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio.

The New Orleans airport is functioning only on a limited basis. The airport lacks power, runway lights and navigation aids, meaning flights are limited to daylight hours.

Airline pilots have been agitating for rescue flights for since at least Tuesday, when an American Airlines Boeing 757 landed at New Orleans' Louis Armstrong Airport to deliver supplies and evacuate more than 100 stranded employees and passengers.

"If we save one life, wouldn't it be worth the effort?" said Jeff Grinnell, an American Airlines captain. "We're ready to go."