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Fears of Possible Terrorist Attack Prompt Cancellation of Flights to US - 2004-01-31


Fears of a possible terrorist attack have prompted the cancellation of five passenger jet flights from Europe to the United States. British Airways has grounded two flights from London to Washington and one from London to Miami. Air France has called two flights from Paris to Washington.

British Airways says safety comes first, and Air France says security concerns are behind its cancellations.

Meanwhile in Washington, a U.S. official speaking on condition of anonymity said Saturday that intelligence pointed to the al-Qaida terrorist network targeting possibly five or six European flights to the United States.

A spokeswoman for British Airways said in London that the airline had canceled the flights on advice from the UK government, for security reasons.

Aviation security expert Chris Yates from the respected Jane's Transport says canceling flights is never taken lightly, so the information must have been fairly compelling.

"A prudent and sensible step in the light of what seems to be, and I stress the word seems to be, some credible evidence suggesting that these flights may well be targeted," said Chris Yates.

No specifics on the intelligence have been released publicly, but Mr. Yates believes it may have something to do with passenger lists.

"This may have an awful lot to do with the fact that the hajj [pilgrimage in Saudi Arabia] is coming to an end in Mecca and that we are moving now towards the festival of Eid," he said. "And all of those people who are out in the pilgrimage will be traveling back through the aviation system over the coming days. And the possibility exists that the authorities are picking up names that may have some degree of match to the lists that they look at, but may not necessarily be absolutely accurate."

The current situation is not dissimilar to what was seen over the Christmas and New Year's period when fears of a new September 11-style attack prompted the cancellation of several British Airways and Air France flights to the United States.

Shortly before, the United States had raised its national terror alert to the second-highest level, but that was lowered back to elevated from high three weeks ago.

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