Airlines Prepare for Hurricane Rita

Cruise ships and airlines are preparing for the waves and wind of Hurricane Rita on Texas' Gulf Coast.

About 6,000 people are at sea on three ships owned by the Royal Caribbean and Carnival cruise lines. Their return dates are likely to be pushed back, officials for the two companies said.

Royal Caribbean's Rhapsody of the Seas ship, scheduled to return to Galveston on Sunday after a seven-day Caribbean cruise, added an unplanned stop at Montego Bay, Jamaica, today, said Michael Sheehan, spokesman for Miami-based company. Its 2,247 passengers were surveyed to see whether they'd rather fly home from there or continue with the trip. The return has been postponed until at least Monday and could go later than that, he said.

The cruise-ship company is looking into possibly chartering flights from Sangster International Airport in Montego Bay to get passengers back before the storm hits. A decision has not been made, but company officials are meeting four times a day to discuss the hurricane.

Royal Caribbean is updating its Web site, partly to let its next set of outbound guests know how long the departure will be delayed.

Although more than 95 percent of those sailing out of Galveston drive to the pier, the company is offering a $100 ticket voucher to anyone who has to change a flight schedule as a result of the delayed return.

Carnival Cruise Lines is also not sure what it will do.

The Conquest and its 3,200 passengers were also scheduled to return Sunday. The Elation has 2,170 people on board and is scheduled to return Saturday.

"We're still evaluating and monitoring the storm and seeing what our plans are," said Vance Gulliksen, a company spokesman.

"Typically, we'll maybe wait for the storm to pass and bring the ship in late after the storm passes. But we need to look at the ship channels to see if it's safe the bring the ships in if there's electricity or debris in the area."

Still reeling from the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, the nation's airlines, warily watched the approach of Hurricane Rita on Wednesday, although none of the major carriers had announced flight cancellations at Gulf Coast cities. But all were preparing to stop service and evacuate employees and airplanes as the storm gets closer.

Airlines were also cleaning up after Rita swept through Florida and the Caribbean.

"We're between landfalls right now," said Tim Smith, a spokesman for Fort Worth-based American Airlines. American operates a hub in Miami, and regional affiliate American Eagle has a hub in San Juan, Puerto Rico.

Continental Airlines, the largest carrier at Houston's Bush Intercontinental Airport, was maintaining its normal schedule as it watched the storm approach. Decisions on changing the schedule will be made Thursday, airline officials said.

Executives with Dallas-based Southwest Airlines, which has a major operation at Houston Hobby Airport, held conference calls Wednesday as they tracked the storm's progress.

"Depending on the path of the storm, we'll know exactly what to do with service," said spokesman Ed Stewart.

Southwest, the largest airline at Louis Armstrong Airport in New Orleans, took a major hit from Katrina.

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