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Travelers stranded by cancellation of many flights


When bad weather cancels flights at Baltimore-Washington International Airport -- when people are strewn about waiting areas as they were yesterday, trying to get some sleep -- the cleanup crews are sympathetic.

"We try not to vacuum too close," said Rick D. Nelson, a custodial supervisor at BWI. "Weather like this makes more work for us because some of our people can't make it in and stranded people eat more and make more trash."

There were more idle travelers making more trash than usual at BWI yesterday because sleet, ice and freezing rain forced several of BWI's 17 airlines to delay or cancel flights. The airport's two primary carriers, Continental Airways and U.S. Air, moved no planes after 8 a.m. yesterday; they hope to resume service this morning.

All airport runways were closed from 6:22 a.m. until 8:06 a.m. yesterday, and the man who made the decision was Solomon Harp III, a former Air Force fighter pilot in Vietnam and manager of BWI operations since 1990.

Mr. Harp said he had only slept about eight hours -- a catnap here and a few winks there -- since the latest wave of winter storms moved into Maryland on Monday.

"Federal regulations say we have to close the runways if there is more than 2 inches of loose, dry snow, more than a half-inch of slush or if braking capability is less than poor," said Mr. Harp. "The problem this morning was too much slush, about an inch at 5 a.m. We closed all four runways."

At 6 a.m., Mr. Harp checked in with National Weather Service chief Fred Davis before calling a meeting of all essential airport managers, including Federal Aviation Administration personnel, people in charge of ground transportation, public information employees and airline managers.

Even with up-to-the-minute data from the weather service, Mr. Harp conceded: "It's hard to predict what you're going to do in the middle of a major storm with airplanes and people strewn all over God's little acre."

All the while, every line inside airport operations rang with urgent calls from big shots, reporters and ordinary travelers asking: "What's going on with my flight?"

As Mr. Harp talked to airport managers, BWI spokeswoman Carol Riley was giving status reports to media from as far away as Chicago and lining up Maryland Aviation Administration chief Ted Mathison for local television camera shots.

Said Mr. Mathison: "We've already spent several hundred thousand dollars more for snow removal that we budgeted for this year."

That money has not gone for salt to be used on runways -- the corrosive stuff dumped on streets and highways would eat away at aluminum airplane bodies. Instead, airport workers use $4.35-a-gallon de-icing chemicals and a pulverized sand so fine it will not damage jet engines if sucked inside a turbine.

"We used 1,500 tons of it in the [Jan. 17] storm last month, and this week we've used about 500 tons," said Gary Hicks, director of airport maintenance.

"Our saving grace is that we've been treating the runways all week," said Mr. Harp as the sleet began to taper off at 5 p.m. "The ground temperatures have been pretty high, about 29 degrees, and with the chemicals, the ice was peeling right off."

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