Airline Expects 1,000 Stranded; Workers Evacuate LR Buildings

The closing of the Little Rock National Airport is expected to flood area hotels, and downtown Little Rock office building managers scrambled to weigh evacuation options as a precautionary measure.

The Bank of America Plaza was shut down late Tuesday morning, but many employees had already left.

Little Rock National and the Northwest Arkansas Regional Airport closed Tuesday after two airplanes crashed into the World Trade Center in New York City and another airplane crashed into the Pentagon in Washington, D.C. The Federal Aviation Administration canceled all flights in the United States and ordered all flights in the air to land immediately.

The Little Rock National Airport is closed, and about 24 planes have taken refuge there. Area hotels have been warned that hundreds of displaced passengers will need lodging.

Meantime, the Bank of America Plaza at 200 W. Capitol Ave. in Little Rock was shut down late Tuesday morning, maintenance supervisor Bill Henson said. Most of the workers in the 24-story office tower had already left, so Presidio Commercial Services, the building's management company, made the decision to lock it up, Henson said.

Hank Kelley of Flake & Kelley Management, which manages the 40-story TCBY Tower, said office managers were being encouraged to allow employees to evacuate as a precautionary measure but that there is no mandatory evacuation. The Little Rock Fire Department said there is no apparent threat downtown, Kelley said.

Frank Thomas, a spokesman for Stephens Inc., the Little Rock investment firm, said it is allowing all non-essential personnel to go home but not evacuating its offices. At its New York City, Boston and Chicago offices, Stephens let employees go home, Thomas said.

The Regions Bank Building has not been evacuated, building manager Diana Lacy said. Area hotels are still unsure how many passengers will be seeking lodging for the night.

Hotels Gear Up for Stranded Passengers

"American Airlines has about 1,000 people that they need to locate in hotel rooms. I don't have a number from Southwest Airlines," said Tim Gonser, vice president and general manager of the Excelsior Hotel in Little Rock. "I'm assuming we'll be full by the end of the day."

The hotel had set a special rate for passengers displaced by the national shutdown of air traffic.

"We assume we'll be feeding a lot of people today, so we're setting ourselves up," Gonser said. And while the situation is "unprecedented," he said, the preparations are not unlike those that he experienced during 14 years of hotel management in hurricane-prone Florida.

Phyllis Kloski, general manager of Best Western Inntowne Hotel on Interstate 30, said American Airlines and Delta were planning to bring grounded passengers to the hotel by bus. The hotel will send a van to the airport to pick up Southwest Airlines passengers.

Southwest and Delta will be giving passengers vouchers, "which means we'll bill the airline directly." She was unsure of payment arrangements for American passengers.

The Motel 6 near the Little Rock Airport said it has rooms available for travelers left stranded at the airport.

The hotel's general manager, Sandi Self, said an airport official called Tuesday morning after the disasters and asked if rooms were open.

Self said the hotel has a total of 129 rooms at Highway I-30 and Scott Hamilton Dr. and many of them are open. Self said the hotel already has enough members on staff to handle the influx of customers.

The airlines probably will pay for the travelers if they have to stay overnight, she said. "We're available and we'll do anything that we can to help," Self said.

The Capital Hotel said late Tuesday that it has reduced rates to $75 for current hotel guests and travelers who may be stranded in Little Rock due to the closing of Little Rock National Airport, according to Joe Rantisi, general manager of The Capital Hotel.

"This rate is good across the board for any of our rooms tonight," Rantisi said. "We are anxious to do whatever we can to alleviate the stress of stranded travelers who cannot return to their homes until the FAA resumes air travel in the United States."

The Capital said it will also offer special food service Tuesday in both Ashley's at the Capital and the Capital Bar & Grill to accommodate as many travelers as possible.

"Our doors are open and if need be, we can utilize meeting rooms and other public areas of the hotel to take care of travelers in Little Rock," Rantisi said.

Wal-Mart Cancels Travel

Asda, the British arm of Wal-Mart Stores Inc. of Bentonville, had about a dozen employees stranded in New York City today, but they were safe on the ground, said Nick Agarwal, an Asda spokesman.

"We have canceled travel to the U.S.," he said. "We have a number of colleagues in the U.S., and we have reports that they're all fine and in New York."

Agarwal said he couldn't comment on security measures at Asda or Wal-Mart.

Tom Williams, a spokesman for Wal-Mart, said the world's largest retailer is checking with stores near New York City and the District of Columbia to see what stock will need to be replenished immediately due to the airplane crashes. Williams said water could be a concern.

The company has no stores in the two metropolitan areas, but does have stores in Nassau and north Westchester counties near New York City, and in the Virginia suburbs of Alexandria, Fairfax, Manassas and Leesburg, all of which are near Washington, D.C. Stores near military installations, particularly, will get priority for restocking of food, water or other goods.

Wal-Mart has television sets in operation today at its corporate headquarters in Bentonville so employees can monitor news of the terrorist attacks. Williams said all Wal-Mart employees who were travelling today are safe on the ground.

"We have to all take a deep breath and see what unfolds in our country," Williams said. "It's just a sad day for us."

Acxiom Corp. of Little Rock has offices in New York about three miles from the World Trade Center, spokesman Dale Ingram said. Decisions on whether to keep the office open were being made on site, he said.

Arkansasbusiness.com will update this story.