Airport turmoil goes on despite lower threat level

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The Independent Online

Air travellers faced a fifth day of delays and confusion after a decision by the security services to lower Britain's terror threat level came too late to prevent further severe disruption.

The announcement that the risk was being downgraded from "critical" to "severe" came shortly after midnight yesterday. It was followed by a directive to airports to ease the stringent rules on carrying hand luggage on board.

But the British Airports Authority (BAA) said Heathrow and Gatwick airports, the busiest in the country, would not be able to introduce the new regulations fully until today, to allow staff to be trained. Dozens of flights were cancelled at both airports, as well as at Stansted and Edinburgh.

The lowering of the threat level still means that a terrorist attack is considered likely, and John Reid, the Home Secretary, warned against any complacency among the public.

The decision was taken by security and intelligence chiefs in the Joint Terrorism Analysis Centre (JTAC).

There is some private scepticism on the opposition benches over the Government's handling of the emergency. One leading Tory MP said: "I think they are talking it up for all it's worth."

The downgrading came after JTAC satisfied itself that there was little obvious threat from alleged co-conspirators who evaded capture on Thursday, or from other groups that might have been galvanised into action by the arrests.

It was followed by advice to airports that passengers should be allowed to carry small items of luggage on board, as well as laptop computers and mobile phones. The ban on almost all liquids remains.

The new rules were already in place at many airports, including Luton, Birmingham, Edinburgh and Belfast, when the first travellers arrived yesterday.

But Heathrow cancelled 68 flights, Gatwick 33 and Stansted 16, and thousands of passengers still faced serious delays. Further cancellations are expected at Heathrow today, but airport executives are optimistic it will be the lowest number since the emergency was sparked afterdawn raids were made last Thursday.

A BAA spokesman said searches of passengers had been reduced from 100 per cent to 50 per cent yesterday, and this had already improved the flow through the airports.

The Government was ridiculed yesterday after it emerged that John Prescott, the Deputy Prime Minister, had paid personal visits to three airports, but only one of them had suffered any serious disruption.

Mr Prescott avoided the main scenes of chaos at Heathrow and Gatwick, by instead calling in at Huddersfield airport, close to his Hull constituency, where two flights were cancelled last Thursday, and none have been since.Huddersfield airport's spokesman, Ryan Martinez, said: "Everything's going smoothly."

Mr Prescott also went to Doncaster's Robin Hood airport, where no flights were cancelled. A spokeswoman for the airport said: "There were a few delays, not major at all. The passengers were quite happy."

Mr Prescott also visited Stansted airport in Essex, which has suffered cancellations and delays. Stansted's managing director, Terry Morgan, said: "We are very grateful to him for coming to see how we are coping."

But the Liberal Democrat transport spokesman, Alistair Carmichael, said: "You have to wonder if the people left queuing for hours to catch their flight had not suffered enough without John Prescott turning up.

"With the world's attention focused on Heathrow and Gatwick, the Deputy Prime Minister has kept himself busy by visiting the airports that are conveniently on the route of his drive back to London."

What you can and can't take on board a plane

* Passengers departing from a UK airport or transferring from an international flight are allowed to carry one item of hand luggage when they pass through the security checkpoint. Its dimensions must not exceed a maximum length of 45cm, a width of 35cm and a depth of 16cm (17.7in x 13.7in x 6.2in), including wheels, handles and side pockets. All carried items will be X-rayed.

* No liquids are allowed other than prescription medicines essential for flight (for example, a diabetic kit) and baby milk and liquid baby food (which must be tasted in the presence of a security guard by the accompanying passenger).

* The prohibition on liquids includes tooth gels, toothpastes, skin and hair lotions, mouthwash, hair gel, drinks, soups, syrups, perfume, deodorant, shaving foam and aerosols.

* All laptops and large electrical items (such as a large hairdryer or portable DVD) must be removed from the bag and placed in a tray.

* Pushchairs and walking aids are permitted but must be screened by X-ray. Wheelchairs are permitted but must be thoroughly searched.

* After the security point, items may be bought in the departures lounge and carried on board.

* For passengers travelling to the United States, the above regulations apply, but travellers will also not be permitted to take any liquid or gel items bought in the departures lounge (ie: after the security check) into the aircraft cabin. Any food or drinks must be consumed before boarding or they will be confiscated.

* Passengers travelling to the US will be searched a second time at the departure gate.