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Crash shakes up travel at TIA

Published Sep. 10, 2005

Hands on hips, airline ticket in hand, Karen Conley stood in line Monday at the US Airways counter at Tampa International Airport.

"No way. Not today. Not tomorrow. Maybe not ever. I'm not flying again. I'm turning in this ticket and renting a car," said Conley, of Poughkeepsie, N.Y. "If I can't get a car, I'll find a bus. If I can't find a bus, I'll go out to the highway and use my thumb."

Conley, a grocery store produce manager, said the crash of an American Airlines flight in Queens on Monday, coming on top of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, had finished her for air travel.

"I can't deal with it," she said. "If my feet leave the ground again, it'll be to climb up the steps of a bus."

All over TIA Monday, other passengers were making a similar decision: to fly or not to fly. Unlike Sept. 11, when the decision was made for them, travelers on Monday were confronted with an option.

Most chose to go.

Carla Luptowski was among those who decided not to fly. Luptowski and her husband, Dave, found another way back to Detroit after returning from a cruise. She canceled their airline reservations with the simple explanation, "I'm scared."

And John Hughes, 27, a used car salesman from Clearwater, said he was thinking about putting off a planned trip to Detroit for Thanksgiving.

"Maybe I'll just wait and go at Christmas," Hughes said. "Even then, maybe I'll just drive."

It was not the sort of comment that Louis Miller, executive director of the Hillsborough County Aviation Authority, wanted to hear.

"That's the big question now," he said. "Will anybody want to fly for the holidays?"

Some passengers had no choice Monday.

After New York's major airports closed for several hours, MetroJet canceled two flights to LaGuardia, JetBlue two to John F. Kennedy, where the American flight originated, Delta one flight to JFK and Continental one flight to Newark.

The airports reopened at mid afternoon and service between TIA and New York resumed early Monday evening. New York is TIA's largest destination city with 16 departures and 16 arrivals daily.

The main complaint at the airport Monday was not cancellations; it was passengers' inability to get accurate information from the airlines, when they could even reach the airlines by phone.

Mouna Taouil, 18, was stranded with family members when their morning US Airways flight to New York was canceled. First, the Connecticut-area residents heard that all New York flights were canceled. Then they heard they weren't.

"I wish they would tell us what's really going on," Taouil said.

People struggled on cell phones to get through to airlines, only to find the lines jammed.

And the schedule boards were hours behind reality in announcing delays and cancellations.

But the majority of airline passengers were not letting Monday's events discourage them.

"Our main job today has been to reschedule flights for people whose plans have changed and to find hotel space for the people who are stranded up there," said Fitz Rawls, of Bowen Travel Connection in Tampa. "But we're not seeing cancellations because at this point everybody thinks it's a mechanical problem. And those have existed as long as airplanes have been flying."

Rawls and other travel agents said they have seen travel pick up in the past three weeks.

"It's not back to pre-September levels, but it's encouraging to see people are not letting this event rule their lives forever," said Rawls, whose agency does 80 percent of its business in corporate travel.

But agents who handle more leisure travel said those customers will have widely divergent reactions to Monday's plane crash.

"There are still a great number of people not convinced air travel is safe and this will only reinforce that," said Debbie Elgin, president of Bay Pines Travel in St. Petersburg. "Then we have people who want the bargains and believe prices will come down again. It's really a mixed bag."

If recent events in aviation have shaken travelers, Monday's accident did little to soothe the nerves of people who live in the Plantation subdivision of Carrollwood, where aircraft routinely fly overhead.

"When I hear a plane, I look up to see if anything unusual is happening," said Belinda Rosas. "I'm more concerned now. Anything can happen."

Jessica Selvidge, 12, was a little more cavalier.

"I hear them. I watch them. Then I go back to what I'm doing," she said.

_ Times staff writers Christopher Goffardand Susan Thurston contributed to this report.