Airport braces for Super Bowl exodus

NEW ORLEANS (AP) - With the Super Bowl over, airport officials were bracing for a massive exodus of visitors on Monday.

Spokeswoman Michelle Wilcut says about 42,000 people are expected to board planes at Louis Armstrong New Orleans International Airport - a big jump from the 33,000 who boarded after the city's last Super Bowl in 2002. Whether their team won or lost, many visitors would be taking home memories of a lifetime.

"I'm so happy I'm emotional," said San Franciscan Sara Justice, who said she took a week off from work to come to the Super Bowl. She sipped a cocktail and watched the game wearing a 49ers T-shirt and red and gold Mardi Gras mask at Pat O'Brien's bar in the French Quarter.

It figures to be a busy week for the airport as Mardi Gras visitors will begin arriving by Friday for the weekend of parades and parties leading to Fat Tuesday, Feb. 12. To accommodate Monday's crunch, the airport has nearly doubled passenger screening lanes, from 14 to 25. Some have been set up in a closed concourse and others downstairs in lanes generally used for Customs screening of incoming passengers.

"When Concourse C gets busy we'll route people downstairs and walk people backwards through Customs, through the screening lines and up the escalators," she said. Wilcut says many airport restaurants planned to stay open all night because people with morning flights often go from the game or French Quarter directly to the airport. The rush out of town also was expected to keep cabbies busy throughout the day.

"It happens during Mardi Gras, any busy, busy time," she said. "The Super Bowl is by far absolutely the biggest event you're going to have," she said. Wilcut said people have been coming in over the past two weeks, "and 95 percent of them leave on Monday." If it can be avoided, she said, "Never, ever fly on a Super Bowl Monday."

She said travelers should be at the airport at least three hours before their flight times. Airlines provide monthly passenger totals, but daily information is considered proprietary, she said. The departure totals come from the Transportation Security Administration.

"Usually, TSA gives us a half-day count when they do their shift change. We'll get the final numbers probably at midday Tuesday," Wilcut said. In the Super Bowl's wake, merchants, restaurants and hoteliers had only a small window to get ready for the hundreds of thousands of visitors expected to hit town for the peak of Carnival season.

Parading, suspended in the city for Super Bowl weekend, was to resume as celebrations raced toward Mardi Gras on Feb. 12. The celebrity-speckled parades of the krewes of Endymion, Bachhus and Orpheus will highlight the New Orleans parade schedule before Fat Tuesday. Then on Mardi Gras, the pageantry of the Rex and Zulu parades and street revelry by up to 1 million people cap Carnival.

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