Two Flights to U.S. Canceled in Wake of Terror Concerns


New York Times

Published: January 1, 2004

ASHINGTON, Jan. 1 — British and Mexican airline officials canceled two flights to the United States — one on New Year's Day and another on New Year's Eve — after receiving warnings from American and British authorities that linked the flights to possible terrorist attacks, government and airline officials said today.

American officials also raised concerns about two other flights earlier this week, temporarily diverting one flight from Mexico on Monday and interviewing passengers on another flight from Britain after it landed at Dulles International Airport outside of Washington on Wednesday evening.

None of the passengers on any of the flights were arrested, officials say, but the incidents reflect the government's increasingly aggressive efforts to protect American airspace in the wake of renewed terrorist threats.

The Bush administration remains concerned that terrorists may seek to hijack an international flight and in recent days, officials say, American fighter jets have accompanied some flights as they landed in the United States and officials have begun requiring some airlines to fly with armed marshals.

Brian Roehrkasse, a spokesman for the Department of Homeland Security, declined to comment on the specific threats that led to the flight cancellations this week, but he said the government believed the threats were serious.

"We have received credible threat information about particular flight routes throughout the past couple of weeks and have worked with our international partners to ensure that security measures are put in place," Mr. Roehrkasse said today.

"Based upon the current assessment of threats, we will have heightened security in place until U.S. intelligence officials assess that the threat has lessened," he said.

British Airways Flight 223 from London to Dulles airport, which was scheduled to carry 180 passengers, was canceled on New Year's Day after British government officials warned the airline of its security concerns, a spokesman for British Airways said. Some passengers were rerouted to Washington on a later flight while others were scheduled to arrive on Friday.

That same flight was the subject of concern a day earlier and officials interviewed the plane's passengers and searched its cargo after the flight landed at Dulles on Wednesday. British Airways officials said they hoped the flight would fly as scheduled on Friday, but were awaiting word from government officials.

"I'm sure there are a lot of disappointed and frustrated people, but it's a security issue and that has to be our number one concern," Leo Seaton, a spokesman for British Airways, said in a telephone interview from London.

Aeromexico's Flight 490 from Mexico City to Los Angeles was canceled on New Year's Eve after American officials advised the airline that it might be the target of terrorist attacks. Its passengers ultimately flew to the United States on different flights. Mireya Magana, a spokesperson for the Mexican Embassy in Washington, said Mexican officials did not know what had prompted the warning.

The cancellations came one week after the Bush administration raised the national terrorism alert rating to orange, or high risk. Tom Ridge, the secretary of homeland security, warned on Dec. 21 that the danger of an attack on the United States was "perhaps greater now than at any point since Sept. 11, 2001."

On Dec. 24, Air France canceled six Air France flights between Paris and Los Angeles because of security concerns.

Increasingly worried about the threat of a terrorist hijacking of an international flight, the Bush administration issued an emergency order on Monday demanding that foreign airlines place armed air marshals on flights that travel into, out of or over the United States if American officials determine there is a threat.