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Security Alert

January 2, 2004 at 12:00 AM EDT
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RAY SUAREZ: Now, new alerts over terrorism and the cancellation of international flights. Since the government first raised the nation’s threat level to code orange last month, at least ten flights headed to the United States have either been cancelled, delayed, or escorted by military fighter jets.

Those flights include Aeromexico flight 490 from Mexico City to Los Angeles — cancelled on New Year’s Eve — and six flights on Air France between Paris and Los Angeles. Those were cancelled last week. Today, British Airways cancelled two more flights: flight 263 from London’s Heathrow Airport to Riyadh, Saudi Arabia — that flight had been scheduled for tomorrow — and today’s flight between London and Washington, D.C., number 223, was cancelled again.

We have a report about that troubled flight from Paul Davies of Independent Television News.

PAUL DAVIES: Another day of confusion and no little apprehension. The transatlantic passengers waited to find out if the security concerns over this one specific British Airways flight had lifted. Less than two hours before BA223 was due to leave Heathrow bound for Washington, the flight was cancelled for a second successive day.

Once again there was no real explanation for more than 300 would-be passengers. BA would only say the plane would not be flying today on advice from the government.

PASSENGER: We were here yesterday, as well, and they sent us home. We were here for five hours yesterday waiting to find out what was happening and then we couldn’t get onto the flight last night, so we came back today and the same thing’s happening.

PASSENGER: And they’re probably checking the plane and … so they’re making it safe for us, I think. But it’s still a little bit worrying knowing that your plane that you are going to be flying on has been stopped for security reasons.

PAUL DAVIES: No other British Airways flights to the United States have been affected. The alert, whatever its nature, appears to be very specific: This route, this plane. The airline and the government clearly believe they could not take the risk.

The potential threat to BA223 was first highlighted on New Year’s Eve when it was in midair approaching Washington. The threat taken so seriously F-16 fighter jets were scrambled to escort the plane into land at Washington Dulles Airport; it was held on a remote runway far away from the airport complex.

There, the baggage was unloaded and screened and all 247 passengers and 17 crew interviewed and their travel documents checked.

Nothing untoward was discovered, but BA223 continues to give concern on both sides of the Atlantic, as indicated by its effective grounding yesterday and today. British Airways says it hopes stranded passengers will be found places on flights still operating to Washington and other American cities.

RAY SUAREZ: For more on these developments, we turn to Sara Goo, an aviation security reporter at The Washington Post. Sara, welcome. Have there been similar triggering incidents? Has the reasons for these cancellations and delays formed kind of a pattern, regardless of country of origin or airline?

SARA GOO: We certainly are starting to see a pattern here, Ray. We’ve learned from our U.S. official sources and aviation sources that for several weeks now they have been looking at very specific routes coming into the United States as well as they are concerned about specific dates. And they also have even gotten some specific flight numbers that they are certainly tracking, which is why we’ve not only seen the flight cancellations but seen the reports also of the F-16 fighter jets trailing some of the flights as they enter U.S. airspace.

RAY SUAREZ: Why this concentration on foreign origin flights? At the time of the Sept. 11 attacks, it was thought that many other places in the world had, in fact, tighter security than the United States. Are terrorists assuming that they have a better shot of getting here from outside the country?

SARA GOO: The reporting has indicated that terrorists seem to have the impression that security has improved here in the United States. And there are other places, even though security is better in some locations outside the United States, in some places it is worse.

But in any case, there seems to be some kind of indication that they could enter these airports, enter these planes and either hijack them or crash them while they’re en route to the United States or use them as a way to gain entry into the United States.

RAY SUAREZ: Has this been a case of American intelligence informing foreign flag carriers and foreign governments of a problem? Or is there a high degree of coordination between France, let’s say, the United Kingdom and the United States?

SARA GOO: Well, we’ve seen, of course, a very high public effort to say that from all the foreign governments that they are cooperating on the face of it, but it is our understanding that U.S. officials are telling the British and French officials, “hey, we are concerned beside this flight, we are concerned about another flight,” and it is up to the local governments there to decide whether to make flight cancellations or take other steps.

RAY SUAREZ: Has there been traffic on concerns and intelligence in the other direction — British Secret Services, for instance, telling the United States Department of Transportation of things they’re hearing?

SARA GOO: Yes, U.S. officials say that they are sharing information. And that sharing has never been at quite this level of cooperation in the past. So they are, you know, congratulating each other on all sides here, and I think that one thing we will be watching is whether the other nations cooperate with the recent order to put foreign air marshals on their planes if they want to enter U.S. airspace.

Now this will only happen if the U.S. government asks them to do so for specific flights. But even so, we know that some nations have concerns about putting any kind of gun on the airline.

RAY SUAREZ: In the almost two-and-a-half years since Sept. 11, there have been times when the threat level has been raised to code orange, but it seems like this time it’s being regarded in a different way, certainly as it regards airline safety. Is that a fair impression?

SARA GOO: That is. Since Sept. 11, as time goes on, the government has been more and more careful about when to flip on the switch, if you will, for code orange. And in this case, you know, I’ve been covering airport security since 9/11; I’ve never seen these unprecedented steps taken about flight cancellations.

It’s incredibly expensive for the airlines to do this — not only the loss of business but also think about the public relations of it to say, essentially, “This flight isn’t safe. We’re canceling it.” And in the future, that might stick in the passengers’ minds.

RAY SUAREZ: From what you’re hearing, has there been any specific threat? Is it of another Sept. 11-style attack, a simple hijacking, or just destruction of an airliner in flight? What are they trying to protect against?

SARA GOO: Well, Ray, we’ve heard a number of things. Certainly, they are very concern beside another 9/11-style hijacking where someone tries to take over the plane and crash it into some kind of U.S. city or target, and specifically we heard about the Air France flight last week that was cancelled, about some possible foiled plot to crash it into Las Vegas. But, Ray, we hear about all kinds of concerns.

They’re still concern beside shoulder-fired air missiles that could be fired on an aircraft. They are still concerned about a kind of Pan Am 103 bombing in a suitcase. They are also concerned about on the ground — some possible, you know, dirty bomb attack at some place with a large public gathering like New Year’s Eve we just passed safely through.

RAY SUAREZ: Sarah Goo from The Washington Post, thanks for joining us.