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British airline cancels US flight amid threat

January 03, 2004

LONDON, Jan 2: Europe's biggest airline, British Airways, cancelled a London-Washington flight on Friday as fears of a Sept 11-style attack grounded a US-bound plane for the seventh time in just over a week.

Washington has introduced dramatic security measures this week, ordering international airlines to put armed marshals on certain flights and dispatching fighter jets to tail some incoming planes.

The British Airways did not give detailed reasons for suspending Flight 223, which was also grounded on Thursday. "It has been cancelled, that was based on advice from the UK government for a security reason," a BA spokeswoman said.

The same flight was held at Washington's Dulles International Airport on New Year's Eve after fighter jets were sent to escort it in. Passengers were questioned, but no one was arrested.

Philip Baum, editor of Aviation Security International, said he suspected BA suspended the flights because of intelligence rather than concerns about names on passenger lists. "I would suspect that they were picking up (intelligence) chatter," he said.

"I think there must be credible intelligence that would indicate certain carriers operating certain routes are potential targets of terrorist attacks."Mr Baum said the other possibility was that Washington had ordered the flight to carry armed marshals following the New Year's Eve alert, but the BA pilots had decided if the threat was so high they would not fly at all.

Britain said on Sunday it would put armed sky marshals on some flights. But British pilots say they are strongly against guns on planes. "There is not enough being done about ground security," a British Airline Pilots Association spokesman said on Friday.

"No one is addressing this issue seriously. The emphasis seems to be on the plane once it is in the air and that is too late." Passengers said BA had made the right decision.

"I think they've done the right thing. We can't just sit around and wait for another catastrophe. ... It's not worth putting your life at risk," said Mike Coppolelli from Washington, who lives in London.

"I'm not upset that they've done that. If there's any doubt don't go," added British consultant William Mallett, who works in Washington. The U.S. government raised its national security alert to the second highest level before the Christmas holidays, fearing hijackers might try to crash planes into U.S. targets over the festive season.

Two AeroMexico flights from Mexico City to Los Angeles over New Year and three Air France flights to Los Angeles over Christmas were also cancelled. But a newspaper report said on Friday the Air France planes were grounded because the FBI had confused the names of several passengers with suspected terrorists.

The FBI gave French police a list of six suspects and information indicating militants linked to Al Qaeda were planning to hijack an Air France jet, according to the Wall Street Journal Europe.

The report, citing French officials, said in one case a child's name was confused with the head of a Tunisian-based militant group. Two other "terrorists" turned out to be a Welsh insurance agent and an elderly Chinese woman. The other three were French citizens.

A French interior ministry spokeswoman declined to confirm or deny the report, saying only: "Some names were checked and they did not correspond to the people."-Reuters