Terrorism alert grounds BA flight to US twice

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A terrorism alert led to the the cancellation of a British Airways flight with 180 passengers from Heathrow to Washington yesterday. The Department of Transport is understood to have passed on intelligence from security sources to the airline that flight BA 223 could be the target of an attack.

Earlier yesterday, the same numbered flight, which left Heathrow at 3.05pm on New Year's Eve, was held for three hours on arrival at Washington Dulles International Airport while the baggage of the 247 passengers underwent extra screening.

Suspicions that the intelligence only related to the BA 223 afternoon route were further confirmed by the disclosure that two other direct British Airways flights to Washington, which leave in the morning and evening, were allowed to continue yesterday.

The decision to cancel the afternoon flight to Washington from Heathrow was only made in the morning. The flight is popular with travellers from outside Britain, who fly into Heathrow and transfer at the airport. Passengers on the cancelled aircraft were offered alternative flights. A BA spokesman said: "The flight was cancelled on the advice from the Department of Transport. It is for security reasons. We operate three flights a day from Heathrow to Washington Dulles International Airport and this relates to one specific flight."

A spokeswoman for the Department of Transport said: "The department is aware that BA has cancelled the flight to Washington. BA took the decision based on security advice from the Government." The spokeswoman said that the department was not prepared to discuss any of the reasons for the alert. It is not clear whether the Department of Transport's security directorate was acting upon information provided by the American or British intelligence agencies.

A BA spokesman said: "We apologise to the passengers whose journeys were delayed. But if US authorities thought it was right and prudent to question passengers, then we are fully supportive."

No one was arrested in connection with the incident.

The alert is the latest scare to involve British Airways and follows the cancellation of a flight to Riyadh in Saudi Arabia on Wednesday.

In that incident, armed police held 61 passengers guard for two-and-a-half hours while the passengers were questioned and their baggage was searched.

The US authorities are particularly fearful at the moment about possible attacks involving terrorists taking over flights leaving and arriving in America. On New Year's Eve, a Los Angeles-bound flight from Mexico was forced to turn back in mid-air after American officials raised concerns about it, saying the passengers had not been properly screened. The move angered the Mexican authorities.

In May, all British Airways flights to Kenya were cancelled after intelligence that an al-Qa'ida attack was imminent. Services to Saudi Arabia were cancelled for two short periods in the summer after similar terrorism alerts.