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Security worries boost canceled flights
( 2004-01-03 09:15) (Agencies)

The safety net tightened around air travel Friday as British flights to Washington and Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, were canceled, while law enforcement officials acknowledged that some delays were caused by mistaken identities.

British Airways aircraft on the tarmac at London's Heathrow Airport's Terminal 4, Friday, Jan. 2, 2004, from where flight BA223 to Washington was due to take off. The flight was cancelled for security reasons for the second consecutive day. On New Year's Eve the same flight was kept on the runway for three hours after landing at Washington Dulles International Airport to allow security officials to board the plane and question passengers. [AP]
British Airways said a flight to Riyadh, which had been due to leave London's Heathrow Airport on Saturday, was scrapped along with a return flight scheduled to leave Riyadh on Sunday.

The airline also canceled its third flight in 24 hours Friday between London and Washington's Dulles International Airport, and another flight from London arrived at Dulles two hours late on Friday because of additional passenger screening.

Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., senior Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee, said officials are getting "an enormous amount of much more than single-source reporting that is very specific." The information can come from computerized watch lists, interception of communications and intelligence agents, he said.

Mistakes are inevitable, Rockefeller said in an interview, but the failure to respond "is a far worse alternative in spite of the inconvenience to passengers."

The mistakes were apparent in France, where a police official said six cases of mistaken identity were behind the pre-Christmas grounding of six Air France flights between Paris and Los Angeles over terrorism fears.

The names of six passengers sounded similar to those of terrorist suspects provided by the FBI (news - web sites), prompting the French government to ground the planes, the official said on condition of anonymity.

Pierre Debue, director of the French border police, said U.S. officials have asked France to check out a few suspicious names on passenger lists nearly every day since Christmas Eve.

One turned out to be a 5-year-old child, and another was a prominent Egyptian scientist, he said. The Wall Street Journal reported that two other suspected "terrorists" turned out to be an elderly Chinese woman and a Welsh insurance agent.

"We had a name connected with a terror plot and it showed up on the manifest and we didn't have full biographical information, so we take those precautions until you can assure yourself things are OK," a senior FBI official said, speaking only on condition of anonymity.

The watch lists have phonetic spelling of Arab names, the official said, making mistakes inevitable because individuals will have similar names.

Some passengers were more understanding than others.

"I am irritated," said Deepa Menon, 28, a law student from Washington who was supposed to be on a canceled British Airways flight. "I am sure there are reasons but I do wish we had known what was going on earlier."

But Mike Coppolelli, 39, a Washingtonian who lives in London, supported the airline's decision.

"We can't just sit around and wait for another catastrophe to happen and say, 'Oh gosh, we shouldn't have gone,'" he said. "I feel more comfortable knowing they've canceled it and something has possibly been averted."

Despite the inconvenience, air travelers continue to book flights.

Carlson Wagonlit Travel of Minneapolis, the world's second-largest travel firm, said Friday it has been in regular contact with agents around the country and they have not reported any significant dropoff in bookings since the terror threat level was raised to orange.

Steve Loucks, a spokesman for the company, said travelers appear to have taken the latest government warning and precautionary measures in stride, accepting it as "part of the new reality."

Asa Hutchinson, undersecretary for border and transportation security in the Homeland Security Department, said he hopes passengers would support the precautionary steps.

"I hope it makes people feel more comfortable flying, knowing that officials will take the appropriate steps to guarantee the safety of the passengers," he said on CNN.

"And to put it in perspective, there's thousands and thousands of international flights every day. Really, only a small handful were canceled. There were probably more flights that were canceled because of mechanical reasons than because of any security concerns. But we realize it is an extraordinary inconvenience as well and it would not be done except it being necessary."

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