Heathrow airport moved closer to meltdown last night as a three-day show of unity between the Government, airports and airlines disintegrated. BAA, which owns the UK's leading airports, ordered airlines to axe one in three departures in the afternoon and evening. In response, British Airways' chief executive launched an unprecedented attack on the airport authorities.
Willie Walsh, who took over the helm at BA last October, had spent the previous 60 hours watching his airline's passengers take the brunt of the new and draconian security imposed in the early hours of last Thursday. He accused BAA of being "unable to provide a robust security search process and baggage operation". As a result, he said, "We are being forced to cancel flights and operate some others from Heathrow without all the passengers on board."
Most industry insiders had predicted that the chaos seen at Britain's airports on Thursday and Friday would quickly ease. Under the new security regime, only a minimal number of personal items are permitted; everything else must be checked in. As passengers and staff became accustomed to the new rules, it was expected that airlines' schedules would get back into shape.
Outside the London area, that is certainly the case: charter carriers and smaller airlines reported no more problems than the odd delay, typical of a Saturday in August. But Heathrow - where BA is by far the biggest carrier - was in disarray.
At the start of the day, BA announced that 10 transatlantic flights and 21 European departures from its main base had been cancelled. By 9am, 10 more flights had been axed - with dozens more cancelled after the airport authorities' demand that airlines cut their departures by one-third.
Cancelling the average short-haul round-trip represents a loss of around £20,000 in earnings; for transatlantic services the figure is up to £300,000. But what worries Mr Walsh and his fellow airline bosses much more is the long-term effect of the crisis on passenger numbers.
Every passenger, regardless of destination, is subject to the cabin-baggage ban and an extra "pat-down" from security officials after passing through the metal detector. The compulsory body-search has more than doubled the time taken to process each passenger. But US-bound travellers are faced with further checks at the departure gate: all footwear must be removed for inspection, and some items acquired in the "airside" shops are confiscated.
Once the cabin door is closed, the passenger list - together with other personal data - is transmitted to the American authorities. The Transportation Security Administration (TSA) and other agencies comb the manifest in the search for people on the "watch list". Only when all the officials are satisfied about passengers' credentials is permission for departure given. This process has been taking an average of three hours, with some flights delayed by up to seven hours.
"It's BA 223 all over again, only for every flight", said one senior source - referring to British Airways flight 223 from London to Washington DC. In January 2004, intelligence reports suggested that this service was the intended target of a terrorist attack, and it was repeatedly delayed for several hours - and eventually BA erased the flight number from the schedules. The difference in August 2006 is that passengers are not allowed to bring on board so much as a paperback book with which to pass the time.
London and South-east England is the richest aviation market in Europe, but by tomorrow morning some imaginative businesspeople and holidaymakers will have discovered a new gateway to the world: Waterloo International. The Eurostar terminal has already picked up thousands of grounded flyers trying to reach Paris and Brussels: at one stage the cross-Channel train operator was receiving 10 bookings a minute for immediate travel.
Check-in time for Eurostar's premium passengers at the South Bank station is only 15 minutes, and the longer the Department for Transport's ban on cabin baggage endures, the more long-haul travellers are expected to switch to Continental airports. Business travellers accustomed to using their laptops on long flights have been appalled to find their computers consigned to the hold. No other nation has imposed anything like the UK's new security regime, and airports that allow passengers to take bags on board are three hours or less from Waterloo.
British Airways and Virgin Atlantic make most of their profits on Heathrow-US routes. With every day of disruption, more and more passengers will switch to other routes - or decide not to travel. This explains Willie Walsh's anger with the airport, which is matched by BAA's vexation with the Department for Transport. BA insiders also regard the US authorities' performance in processing passenger lists as lamentable. Even with security staff working long shifts, the present regime is seen as unsustainable.
"With the so-called 'special relationship'," said one insider, "Douglas Alexander [the Secretary of State for Transport] should be on the phone to Washington urging them to ease the rules".
Until that happens, we could be watching the slow death, by airport constriction, of Britain's previously flourishing aviation industry.
The new security measures: Travellers face double searches
TRAVELLING TO THE US
Passengers should expect two searches: once at the central screening point and again at the boarding gate. All passengers will be hand searched and footwear, pushchairs and walking aids will be x-rayed. Standard baggage restrictions list still applies. Only wallets, travel documents, essential medicine and approved items may be carried aboard, in clear plastic bags.
Anything not on the list will be confiscated.
Passengers should arrive early and expect severe delays. Check with airlines before leaving.
TRAVELLING TO NON-US DESTINATIONS
Passengers face the same restrictions before boarding as for US-bound flights, but can buy goods after they are searched and carry them onto flights in ordinary bags.
TRAVELLING FROM THE US TO THE UK
Extra searches and additional search of bags at the boarding gate. No liquids or gels in carry-on baggage allowed.
DELAYS AND CANCELLATIONS
BAA is expecting the number of flights cancelled to fall in the coming days and is advising passengers to arrive prepared, with no hand luggage and with necessary items in a clear plastic bag. Delays are expected. Passengers are advised to arrive early, to allow enough time to check in and for increased security measures.
Both terminals and roads around the airport are very busy, its website reports. "We recommend you use public transport and allow extra time for your journey."
Delays for check-in and flight departures are expected. The airport is advising passengers to check with their airline for cancellations before arriving.
A spokesman asked holidaymakers to arrive on time in order to cope with the extra security measures. He said most passengers seemed to be coping well with the increased security.
Passengers are being urged to arrive prepared as the airport struggles to get back to normal. A spokesman said it was relying on passengers to help themselves and airport staff by arriving early and with no hand luggage.
The spokesman said that passengers should check the status of their flights with their airline before arriving. "If your flight has not been cancelled you need to allow plenty of extra time to get through security," he said.
Passengers are being advised to arrive at the airport early, allowing extra time for security checks. Anyone not travelling is not allowed into the terminal building.
Birmingham is asking passengers to turn up for flights as normal, but it said people should carry no hand luggage unless essential.
People should arrive at the airport with plenty of time to spare and not expecting to book in at the "last minute".