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Travelers’ plans on hold — will FAA ground flights?

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Stephanie Aldred and her husband were planning to leave town for the 2002 Winter Games. They've set their house aside for Olympic visitors and were looking forward to several days of fun in Las Vegas and San Diego, away from Olympic crowds.

"This has been planned for months," Aldred said.

But those plans could be on hold since their 8:45 p.m. flight out of Salt Lake City International airport on Feb. 8 is scheduled to depart right in the middle of opening ceremonies. With the Games now less than a month away, Aldred is stuck waiting for the Federal Aviation Administration to decide whether it will ground all flights into and out of the airport Feb. 8 for opening ceremonies and Feb. 24 for closing ceremonies.

"We're probably going to end up staying the night at the airport," Aldred said, half jokingly.

"My suggestion to people who are flying during those times is to change those reservations now," said Robert Flowers, head of the Utah Olympic Public Safety Command.

On Thursday, officials announced a 45-mile ring of restricted airspace around Salt Lake City from Feb. 8-24. Only certain flights will be allowed inside that ring.

But an official stand on what will happen to the airport during the closing and opening ceremonies is still being discussed by top FAA officials, spokesman Mike Fergus said.

"There is concern among senior management . . . as to whether or not there should be an entire closure or other options," Fergus said.

Flowers said he's been told the delay is not over whether flights will be grounded during both ceremonies, but rather how long.

"The air will be closed during those times, I'm confident of that," he said.

While Fergus said the FAA's decision could come at any moment, the delay has made it difficult for airline passengers like Aldred to change their travel plans

Delta informed Aldred it would cost $100 per ticket to switch her reservation because she purchased the tickets on sale.

"Everyone but them has conceded to the fact that there's not going to be any flights," Aldred said of the airline.

Delta officials say that since the issue is still under review by the FAA, the company isn't changing its flight schedule.

"Delta is working with the Federal Aviation Administration and the Air Transport Association to develop a comprehensive plan which will minimize impact to our operations and our passengers and still provide the necessary level of security for the ceremonies," Delta officials said in a prepared statement released Friday. "Since this issue is still under review by the FAA at this time, Delta is not modifying its schedule into and out of Salt Lake City during the Olympic ceremonies."

Whatever happens, Flowers said he's perturbed the decision is taking so long, considering the Games are almost here and an airport closure could impact several airlines and their customers.

"I don't understand the delay," Flowers said. "I think somebody needs to make a decision out there (in Washington, D.C.) and needs to make it quickly. . . . They're not the ones that are taking the heat; we are."

The U.S. Secret Service, which is the lead agency for Olympic security for the 2002 Winter Games, recommended shutting down all flights into and out of the airport during both ceremonies.

If President George W. Bush attends the opening ceremonies, as Sen. Bob Bennett, R-Utah, and others have indicated he will, the Secret Service will ground all flights while the president lands and takes off. The same is true for Vice President Dick Cheney, who is expected to attend the closing ceremonies.

"I can't comment on the exact time frame," Secret Service spokesman Marc Connolly said, "but I think it would be a sufficient amount that we would recommend a window, if you will, before, during and after the ceremonies."

E-mail: djensen@desnews.com