BA cancels two flights
US information about a potential threat led Europe's biggest airline, British Airways, to cancel a London-Washington flight yesterday - the seventh time a US-bound flight was cancelled in just over a week.
Hours later British Airways also said it had cancelled its scheduled flight from London to Saudi Arabia today because of security fears.
A British Airways spokeswoman said BA flight 263 - due to leave London's Heathrow Airport at 1335 GMT for the Saudi capital Riyadh - had been suspended for security reasons on the advice of the British government.
The next scheduled BA flight to Riyadh is on Monday and the airline said it would review the situation over the weekend.
In an effort to prevent another September 11-style attack, Washington has introduced dramatic new security measures, ordering foreign airlines to put armed marshals on some flights and dispatching fighter jets to tail some incoming planes. It has also been sharing intelligence data with other nations.
US officials said BA Flight 223, which was also grounded on Thursday, was cancelled by Britain after Washington passed on intelligence information.
"The decision was made by the British government. We shared information we had about a potential threat," said Homeland Security spokeswoman Rachael Sunbarger.
She would not give details. A US official said potential threats could be to the flight, to its flight path, the airline or if passengers' names showed up on terrorist watch lists.
A British Airways spokeswoman in London said the cancellation "was based on advice from the UK government for a security reason."
The same flight was held at Washington's Dulles International Airport on Wednesday after fighter jets escorted it in. Passengers were questioned, but no one was arrested.
With the British Airways cancellation, a total of seven international flights headed to the United States have been cancelled since December 24.
Three Los Angeles-Paris Air France flights were cancelled over Christmas and two Aeromexico flights from Mexico City to Los Angeles were grounded over New Year.
US officials defended the moves, noting that the number of flights grounded for security concerns were a small portion of flights into the United States.
"It is based upon specific intelligence concerns that we have," Homeland Security undersecretary Asa Hutchinson told CNN. "We would not take a step in coordination with another government unless we believe there was specific intelligence."
Hutchinson said the United States believes it can deter an attack by taking tough measures like the cancellations.
"I think we're learning that terrorists react," he said. "I think that they are deterred."
Terrorism analysts said the US government likely has very specific information about the cancelled flights and routes. One noted that the London-Washington flight was commonly used as a connecting flight for many British Airways flights from the Middle East.
Philip Baum, editor of Aviation Security International in London, said Britain also realises its airlines are targets.
"British carriers, and other British institutions, remain ideal targets for terrorists," he said. "We are basically waiting for our first major terror incident."
Passengers said British Airways 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 of Washington, who lives in London.
The US government raised its national security alert to the second-highest level on December 21, fearing hijackers might try to crash planes into US targets over the holidays.
A newspaper report said yesterday the Air France planes were grounded over Christmas because the FBI had confused the names of several passengers with suspected terrorists.
The Wall Street Journal, citing French officials, said in one case a child's name was confused with the head of a Tunisian-based terror group. Two others turned out to be a Welsh insurance agent and an elderly Chinese woman.
A US official denied any confusion, saying the names matched those on a terror watch list and had to be checked.
Analysts said there are often problems with transliteration of Arabic names that result in confusion in identities.