- The Washington Times - Sunday, January 4, 2004

A British Airways flight to Washington took off from London yesterday after it was grounded for two days because of security concerns and delayed for nearly three hours before its afternoon departure.

British Airways Flight 223, originally scheduled to arrive at Washington Dulles International Airport at 6:20 p.m., landed at about 9:15 p.m. last night.

The flight, which has been the most scrutinized since the United States declared a high terrorism alert Dec. 21, departed from London’s Heathrow Airport just after 1 p.m. EST after intensive security checks.

Washington Metropolitan Area Airports Authority spokesman Tom Sullivan could not confirm if the flight was escorted by U.S. fighter jets, but he said airport security was standing by to assist in any way needed.

A British Airways spokesman could not be reached for comment, but on its Web site, the airline said Flight 224, due to depart Dulles last night, had been canceled for “operational reasons.”

Flight 223 was detained Wednesday night for about three hours at Dulles by authorities, who cited “credible information” about suspected terrorist activity, according to a Homeland Security Department official who requested anonymity.

The same flight from London to Dulles was canceled Thursday and Friday. Reciprocal outbound flights to London also were canceled, because the same aircraft is used for both routes.

Quoting an unnamed security source, BBC Radio reported yesterday that “an individual who is on a U.S. list of terrorist suspects was trying to get on British Airlines Flight 223 to Washington when it was canceled on Thursday.”

Asa Hutchinson, undersecretary for border and transportation security in the Homeland Security Department, said the cancellations were justified but it may never be known whether a terrorist attack had been thwarted.

“We made the right decisions,” Mr. Hutchinson said, adding that the decisions to ground the flights were “based on specific intelligence concerns that we have.”

The British government would not discuss its security concerns about yesterday’s delayed flight, but did say it took action following talks “with a variety of sources,” including U.S. authorities.

Suited-up jet fighter pilots remained on high alert yesterday at bases across the country, ready to intercept — and shoot down if necessary — any hijacked commercial airliners, officials said.

Officials with British Airways said the airline would rather cancel flights to the United States than be forced to carry armed sky marshals, the Observer newspaper in London reported today, citing an internal company memo.

A British Airways morning flight to Washington left London on time, at 5:55 a.m. EST yesterday, and last night’s flight from London also was scheduled to leave on time, the airline said.

Officials at Dulles said “everything is back to normal” with Flight 223 and the security procedures surrounding it.

“There’s some FBI presence at the airport,” Mr. Sullivan said. “For the typical flier … the only thing that they would have seen is an increased police presence.”

Police yesterday arrested a Prince George’s County man who they said tussled with airport authorities after he left his car unattended for five minutes in front of a terminal.

Mr. Sullivan said Dennis E. Smith III, 37, of District Heights, returned to the car as it was about to be towed, then ran several other vehicles off the road. When he was pulled over, he refused repeated orders to get out of his car, Mr. Sullivan said.

Police said they used pepper spray to subdue Mr. Smith, who was charged with three felonies. There was no indication of a terrorism threat, Mr. Sullivan said.

The Bush administration on Dec. 21 raised the national terrorism alert level from Code Yellow, or elevated risk, to Code Orange, high risk.

Since then, seven flights headed for the United States — three from France, two from Britain and two from Mexico — have been canceled because of security concerns. Several flights were delayed.

Homeland Security Department spokesman Brian Roehrkasse said yesterday that authorities discussed security measures with officials from the National Football League and the National Collegiate Athletic Association during the playoffs and college bowl season.

The NFL playoff schedule this weekend included yesterday’s game in Baltimore at M&T; Bank Stadium. Bowl games were scheduled in Boise, Idaho, and New Orleans.

NFL spokesman Joe Browne said security has been tight since September 11. Air space over stadiums is restricted by federal legislation.

• This article is based in part on wire service reports.

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