United Airlines Begins Nonstops to New Orleans

Feb. 23 -- Getting to the Big Easy from Oklahoma City will be much simpler now that United Airlines has nonstop flights. The flights that start today come as New Orleans is celebrating Mardi Gras and trying to get back its economic strength after parts of the city were destroyed by Hurricane Katrina. Oklahoma residents are feeling the call of the Crescent City. United's Oklahoma City-New Orleans flights are booked through Saturday as revelers head to the city, said Karen Carney, spokeswoman at Will Rogers World Airport. Toby Keith expected

Mardi Gras officials say the krewes, or clubs that put on the parades and pay for the floats, aren't skimping and the celebrities still are heading to New Orleans to take part in prelenten festival. Oklahoman Toby Keith will be there Monday as the monarch for Harry Connick Jr.'s krewe of Orpheus. "All the major krewes are spending more than they typically would," said Brian Kern, president of Mardi Gras World, which offers tourists a close-up look at the floats. Kern's family has been making floats for Mardi Gras parades for more than 60 years. "If people haven't been to New Orleans, they need to figure out a way to get here. We need tourists," Kern said. "I don't want a handout; I want tourists to come here and help get the economy rolling again." That's what United's regional carrier, Trans States Airlines, wants to do, spokesman Bill Mishk said. "The city is coming back, and we're confident in that," Mishk said. New Orleans city officials are hoping this year's Mardi Gras celebration will prove to the rest of the country that the city has survived and is rebuilding, said Jeff Anding, director of convention marketing for the New Orleans Metropolitan Convention and Visitors Bureau. "We have a lot to offer people now, and I wouldn't have said that in December," Anding said. "The statement is that New Orleans is back. A lot of people paid attention during the hurricane and the flooding, but that's not really New Orleans anymore." Some places not damaged

The French Quarter, a popular tourist destination, received minimal damage during Katrina, and most of the hotels and restaurants in the uptown area are open, Anding said. "The neighborhoods that are still affected, like the Ninth Ward, you wouldn't see a tourist there," Anding said. "You can ride on the street cars, crime is the lowest that its been in a decade and there's no flooding." Tourism dollars are helping the city's economy recover. Mardi Gras alone stands to bring in more than $300 million for the city, and preparations for the week of festivities have created jobs, officials said. "It's a psychological shot in the arm for the city. It's a return to tradition. I don't want to say a return to normalcy because many people still aren't in their homes," Anding said. "Mardi Gras is part of the culture. It reminds people here how it's supposed to be. It's a sign of a return to normalcy." New Orleans has about 25,000 rooms available, according to the city's convention and business bureau. And the city's rooms are about 97 percent full as the peak Mardi Gras season approaches, Anding said. Travelers who plan to venture to New Orleans should be cautious, said Chuck Mai, AAA Oklahoma spokesman. "We're advising people to realize and understand that the city is not back 100 percent," Mai said. "Chose your hotel wisely, and do some investigating. Ask how long they have been open. Do they have heating, air conditioning, plumbing? Does the plumbing work? They may seem like elementary questions, but we have to remember that a lot of the lodging was damaged by Katrina."

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