- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 12, 2004

LONDON — The threat of terrorism has again disrupted international air travel, forcing British Airways to cancel flights yesterday to Washington and Saudi Arabia. But one top British pilot accused intelligence agents of “jumping at shadows.”

British Airways officials said that, acting on a warning from the British government, it had grounded Flight BA223 to Washington scheduled for Sunday, and its Flight BA263 to Riyadh, the capital of Saudi Arabia, on Monday.

“Following advice from the government, we have canceled the two flights for security reasons,” a BA spokeswoman said. “We take our lead from the advice we take from the government as to what action to take.”

The airline declined to disclose the exact nature of the latest threat. But the London Evening Standard newspaper said the government had alerted its flagship carrier to intelligence information it had received from Washington, which included details about particular flights.

There is a growing sense of frustration in Britain after more than a half dozen international flights have been canceled because of U.S. warnings in recent weeks.

“The U.S. security services will not tolerate any element of risk,” one intelligence source was quoted by the Evening Standard as saying. “In [Britain], we have dealt with the [Irish Republican Army] for 20 years and have established an element of risk management.”

One top BA pilot suggested yesterday that “paranoia” has prevailed since the September 11 attacks and said intelligence and government officials were “letting their imaginations run riot.”

“Safety and security is our priority, but we now believe that the U.S. intelligence service is jumping at shadows,” said Jim McAuslan, general secretary of the British Airline Pilots’ Association.

“They didn’t foresee the twin towers tragedy,” Mr. McAuslan said, “and with a presidential election looming, they don’t want to be caught out again. They are jumpy.”

London’s Heathrow Airport, the busiest international air hub in the world, has been at the center of a series of terrorist alerts over the past seven weeks.

The first British Airways cancellation was a Boeing 777 flight to Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, on Dec. 31, followed by another to the same destination four days later. The airline canceled its Flight 223 to Washington, using a Boeing 747, on Jan. 1-2 and again on Feb. 1-2.

British Airways also canceled a flight to Miami on Feb. 1, and Air France called off several flights on its Paris-to-Washington route. The latest action yesterday by British Airways brought the number of cancellations by that carrier to nine.

“In the light of information received, and in discussion with the airline,” said a British Transport Department spokesman, “the decision was made that these flights should be cancelled. The first priority is always the safety of the traveling public.”

But Mr. McAuslan told reporters he had some doubt that the terrorists would choose a British plane because “our security is among the best in the world.”

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