International Papers

Flight Risk

Are U.S. “security sources” trying to hurt European airlines?

Papers around the world reported on the terror threats that prompted three airlines to cancel a handful of flights over the weekend. In a scene reminiscent of the New Year’s cancellation of some U.S.-bound flights from Europe, British Airways, Air France, and Continental nixed a total of six flights from Paris, London, and Glasgow. On Sunday evening, Continental canceled a domestic flight from Washington’s Dulles International Airport to Houston that was due to arrive while the Super Bowl was being played.

Britain’s Sunday Telegraph reported on the spate of cancellations, citing intelligence reports that were passed to the airlines by U.S. security sources. While no official details were provided on the threats that led to the flight cancellations, reports indicate that intelligence sources believe al-Qaida may be trying to unleash biological weapons aboard an international flight. The Telegraph quoted an aviation security analyst speculating that the warnings might be connected to the end of the Muslim hajj, or pilgrimage to Mecca in Saudi Arabia. “Many Muslims will be traveling throughout aviation systems over the next few days, and some names may match or be similar to those held on security records in the United States,” he said. Other experts were less convinced: The Times of London reported that Simon Reeve, the author ofa book on Osama Bin Laden and al-Qaida, scoffed that the information was “tenuous, to say the least.”

Given the inclusion of a Glasgow-U.S. route on the list of suspect flights, it’s not surprising that Scottish papers covered the developments in depth. The Glasgow-based Herald noted that the mood of passengers who were waiting to be rerouted from Glasgow “was one of stoic acceptance rather than al Qaeda-fueled panic.” The Scotsman quoted an Aberdeen intelligence expert who predicted that flight cancellations and other inconveniences will become more common in the future. He suggested that adopting an Israeli-style early check-in policy may enable airlines to conduct adequate background checks while passengers wait in departure lounges, thereby minimizing the need to cancel flights. The story went on to note that the Association of British Travel Agents bristled at such ideas, saying that increased inconvenience will drive customers away from air travel. An ABTA spokeswoman did allow, however, that passengers probably would “prefer for a flight to be cancelled than for any incident to take place.”

A British Airways spokesman explained company policy to the Independent: “The philosophy of British Airways is that any problems are better rectified on the ground before they get to 37,000 feet.”

The headline of a story in the South Australia Advertiser, “Terror alert is over the top,” summed up the suspicion with which the information was greeted in some quarters. The litany of conspiracies entertained in the story includes the possibility that terrorists have inserted flight numbers into their communications in order to raise the alarm and wreak havoc.

The Scotsman ran a British Press Association story in which the head of the British Airline Pilots’ Association called on the British authorities to “examine the strength and validity” of the U.S. government’s warnings. Without dismissing the U.S. information completely, the story noted that some British aviation insiders believe the American alerts help drive traffic to U.S. carriers. This sentiment was echoed in a Guardian op-ed that painted the flight cancellations as one more example of the poor judgment and ulterior motives that have driven the war on terror since its inception: “[H]ere comes another babble of awful warnings, rubbishing British Airways and Air France schedules (with Continental as an afterthought) but leaving United, American and the rest magically untouched. Does Osama have a frequent flyer deal with BA? Why can’t Halliburton run airlines too?”