Simon Calder: The Man Who Pays His Way

US authorities are not horsing around

If you think that being a passenger on one of the longest flights in the Western hemisphere is bad enough, imagine being a flying horse. In equestrian class, the legroom might be better. But the catering is even less appetising than in economy, and the in-flight entertainment non-existent - not even a re-run of National Velvet.

If you think that being a passenger on one of the longest flights in the Western hemisphere is bad enough, imagine being a flying horse. In equestrian class, the legroom might be better. But the catering is even less appetising than in economy, and the in-flight entertainment non-existent - not even a re-run of National Velvet.

The 15 racehorses travelling in the cargo section of KLM flight 685 from Amsterdam to Mexico City last weekend should have arrived in the high-altitude capital in good time to catch the Grand National on satellite TV. Instead of making the acquaintance of some Mexican mares, they found themselves back at the starting gate: Schiphol airport. Their mistake, like that of the 278 human passengers, was to be travelling on a Jumbo jet whose flight plan took it over part of the western US.

For three years, the American authorities have been routinely delving into the passenger lists of foreign airlines flying to their territory. On Christmas Eve 2003, for example, some unfortunate Welsh passengers changing planes in Paris found that their unusual names made them non grata in the US, and an Air France flight to Los Angeles was cancelled. Over the following months, many more transatlantic flights were scrapped on the orders of the Americans. Indeed, BA223 from Heathrow to Washington was cancelled, delayed and escorted in by fighter jets so often that the airline eventually changed the flight number.

Now it has become clear that you could find your background investigated by the security agencies even if you have no wish to visit the US, but have merely chosen a flight that happens to be routed through US airspace.

The Boeing 747 from Amsterdam with its payload of horses took a normal routing towards Mexico City: heading north-west over Scotland towards the Arctic, then crossing eastern Canada towards the US border. When the plane had been airborne for nearly six hours, and was approaching the frontier, the Department of Homeland Security identified two individuals among the passengers who were apparently on a "no-fly" list.

At least it is not yet standard procedure to divert any such plane to Guantanamo Bay in Cuba, where the "suspects" could be detained indefinitely without trial. Instead, the captain was told to abandon the journey, turn around and fly back to Amsterdam. At the end of what turned out to be a real non-stop flight, the pair upon whom suspicion had fallen were promptly allowed to go free. Several hundred people and the non-running horses were left to contemplate their 5,000-mile flight to nowhere, and the fact that they faced the same journey again once a plane and crew could be found. Meanwhile, the airline began to calculate how much had been squandered by the US decision. The short-term cost to Air France-KLM in terms of fuel, salaries, air-traffic control, hotels and general disruption could total a quarter of a million pounds; longer term, any incident like this does nothing to enhance a carrier's reputation - even if, like Air France-KLM, it has just won a leading industry award.

The misadventure could also harm tourism in the Caribbean and Central America. There is evidence that travellers to this part of the world are switching away from flights via US airports to minimise hassle; but since many routes from Europe pass over US airspace, some travellers may decide to simply go east or south, not west.

The Americans are entitled to make up whatever rules they wish about the use of their airspace. Washington can exclude individuals even if the rest of the world thinks it absurd to do so - as witnessed when a United Airlines jet from Heathrow to Washington carrying the peace campaigner Yusuf Islam (formerly Cat Stevens), was forced to land so that the singer could be offloaded and deported.

The appetite of the security services is, however, far from sated. From 6 June, passengers flying to, from or over the US will be obliged to provide additional personal details, including home address and passport expiry date. This extra information could provoke yet more pointless diversions. Along with the misery caused to human and equine passengers, each incident diminishes the reputation of the US.

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