Air passengers will face disruption for years

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The Independent Online

The much-postponed BA 223 flight finally took off for Washington yesterday after the US relented in the face of British pressure to ease an air terror alert prompted by intelligence of an imminent al-Qa'ida attack.

However, other flights remained grounded, including a British Airways flight to Riyadh, as ministers admitted passengers faced disruptions for "many years" because of an increased threat of terrorism.

The Department for Transport will rule tomorrow whether BA can resume flights to Saudi Arabia, after further discussions with the US.

The clearance for yesterday's flight to Washington came after the airline was forced to cancel it two days running, on New Year's Day and 2 January. It was cleared for take-off but delayed for more than three hours because of further security checks by the US authorities.

On New Year's Eve, the flight was kept on the runway for three hours after landing at Washington Dulles International airport to allow security officials to board the plane and question passengers.

The repeated cancellations, which followed an order from the White House that foreign carriers must deploy armed marshals on flights to the US, have prompted a fierce transatlantic row.

David Blunkett, the Home Secretary, persuaded Tom Ridge, head of the US Department of Homeland Security, to ease the restrictions in a phone call on Friday night. Mr Blunkett told Mr Ridge that the cancellations were undermining the credibility of terror alerts and were of little practical use since suspicions about the flight were now publicly known.

Senior British ministers are angry that they were not consulted over the measures taken by the US authorities last week in response to specific intelligence of an attack.

"The notion that the US can bounce the rest of the world every time they get in a hole is something that we will have to address," said one minister.

Britain is pressing for a meeting of the high-level US-British "contact group", which co-ordinates the response to terrorism, next week. There has been tension for some time over US demands for improved aviation security. A serious row was avoided in the summer when the Department of Homeland Security said it wanted background checks carried out on all passengers intending to fly to the US from Britain.

Last night, it was suggested that armed marshals may never be used on BA flights. The Observer claimed the government had decided marshals would only be put on flights where there was thought to be a specific threat. A BA memo obtained by the newspaper said it would never operate a flight where there was perceived to be a threat.

It emerged yesterday that the US has re-vetted all pilots flying passenger jets into the country. Brian Doyle, a spokesman for the Department of Homeland Security, said intelligence they had was warning them that "there are some forms of infiltration from al-Qa'ida". "We are looking hard into it," he said. "All pilots are going through a very serious security check."

Although the go-ahead for the BA Washington flight yesterday was welcomed as a partial return to normality after a week of security alerts, Alistair Darling, the Secretary of State for Transport, warned that passengers faced "many years" of disruptions because of the increased threat of terrorism.

He said the cancellations of flights to Washington and Riyadh had been promoted by "specific information" which suggested that that was the best course of action.

Asked whether the British authorities themselves had information about specific threats, he replied: "Yes we do. And the reason that different flights are either grounded or there is increased security varies from time to time."