Travel Maze: Bad Night for Passengers as Newark Airport Shuts Down

It was a bad night for travelers at Newark Liberty International Airport on Sunday as the busy airport's largest terminal was shut down for several hours following a security breach.More than 20,000 Continental passengers were forced off planes or made to evacuate waiting areas and get into painfully long lines for rescreening at security checkpoints.

Transportation Security Officials ordered passengers rescreened after an unidentified man walked in the wrong way into the security screening area and disappeared around 5:30 p.m. The man was not found.

Getting There in One Piece

I was luckier than most travelers. My 8:50 p.m. flight to Las Vegas did finally take off at 2 a.m -- 8 hours after I had gotten to the terminal.

%%DynaPub-Enhancement class="enhancement contentType-HTML Content fragmentId-1 payloadId-61603 alignment-right size-small"%%Other travelers found their plane had been canceled, but only after waiting in three-hour lines to go through security for a second time. Apparently the crews on those flights were in danger of hitting the 16-hour federal work limit, so the planes were grounded.

You would think Continental Airlines could have figured out that situation before forcing passengers to go back through security. But there was no indication that Continental employees or Transportation Security Administration personnel were aware of the time limit problem. Occasional loudspeaker announcements couldn't be heard in many parts of the terminal and key TSA personnel didn't even have bullhorns.

Indeed, it's amazing that no one was injured as 20,000 travelers converged at once on the security gates from three different passenger levels after they were reopened around 10 p.m.

Continental flight personnel had to link hands and form a convoy of sorts to get back through security and to their assigned planes as crowds filled every inch of Terminal C.

On board, our flight our captain apologized for our inconvenience. But he noted that it didn't matter when we got there, as long as we got there in one piece.

I like the part about getting there in one piece.

Business Travelers Not Happy

As security becomes more intense at both international and domestic airports following the attempted terrorist incident on the Northwest flight late last month, business travelers aren't going to be happy. One key expert says many business travelers will likely be reassessing their air travel plans, particularly in the case of short-haul plane rides when driving is a viable option.

I talked the other day to Kevin Mitchell, executive director of the Business Travel Coalition, a group funded by major corporations, whose employees use the air travel system. Mitchell says what happened after September 11, and will likely occur this time around, is that business travelers may decide a road trip is the best option, particularly on car rides of five hours or less.

Mitchell says the problem in this security environment will be that that on some days the business traveler will proceed right through security, but on other days he or she could see severe delays due to enhanced security procedures.

"It erodes business traveler's confidence that they will be able to get there on time,'' he said.

Mitchell said if business travelers start thinking that they have to get to the airport hours early before their flight, they will opt to drive.

No one knows exactly what will be happening with security, says Mitchell. Will the body scan procedures and random searches on foreign flights to the U.S. also extend to domestic flights?

Airline personnel told me privately yesterday that security breaches like the one on Sunday are more common they you might think. What was unusual was the reaction, an evacuation of over 20,000 travelers.

The New Normal?

Of course, we all want to be safe and this may be the new normal.

However, if business travelers do turn away from airports in droves, it could be a bad sign for airlines and their struggle for profitability. Business travelers are an important source of revenue for airlines because they often pay higher fares then leisure travelers who plan ahead.

Business travelers have already seen severe scheduling cuts by carriers over the last 15 months or so. The situation may get worse before it gets better if even fewer people are flying.

The Continental captain on my flight said what happened yesterday with our delays to ensure we were safe was worth the hassle.

We did arrive at 4 a.m. in one piece, tired and hopeful that our next flight would be less of a hassle.
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