- The Washington Times - Monday, August 14, 2006

From combined dispatches

LONDON — British airlines canceled up to a third of their flights at Heathrow Airport yesterday and called for the army to help screen throngs of stranded passengers suffering a fourth day of chaos caused by Thursday’s foiled airplane bomb plot.

Airlines will cut 20 percent of flights departing London Heathrow Airport today, following a directive by the airport’s owner amid a bitter dispute over how to handle tougher security measures.

Britain’s ban on all carry-on items remained in effect as British Airways canceled almost 100 flights to Europe from Heathrow and scrapped all its domestic flights from London Gatwick Airport. Most long-haul flights were operating, although 10 British Airways flights to the United States were canceled.

Ryanair and EasyJet, Europe’s two biggest budget airlines, urged Britain’s army and police force to help overwhelmed security staff and reduce overcrowding at checkpoints. Ryanair said new security measures are bringing London’s airports “to the point of collapse.”

Some airlines have accused the British Airports Authority (BAA) — which operates seven of the country’s major airports — of being unable to cope with the new anti-terror security requirements.

“If we the industry and the government don’t work together to have sensible security … we are going to hand these extremists a terrific PR success,” Michael O’Leary, chief executive of Ryanair, told Sky News television. “We don’t need to be body-searching young children traveling with their parents on holiday to Spain.”

British Airways acknowledged that some people were missing flights yesterday because they were stuck in security lines.

“It’s disgusting. They don’t have a system,” said Jenny Chua, who was waiting yesterday at Heathrow for a flight to Singapore. “We’ve been trying to call for days, and they don’t have enough staff.”

Heathrow is Europe’s busiest air hub, handling about 1,250 flights and 190,000 passengers a day. British Airways accounts for 40 percent of air traffic at Heathrow.

British Airways’ chief executive, Willie Walsh, harshly criticized BAA’s Heathrow operations, arguing that the airports authority was “unable” to provide an adequate security-search process and baggage operation there.

British Airways said it was complying with BAA’s directive and expected to cut 20 percent of its flights from Heathrow today. That includes 39 short-haul flights out of 202 and five long-haul flights out of 76.

British Airways said it expected to operate a full European and long-haul schedule from Gatwick but that some domestic flights would be affected.

The directive at Heathrow applies to airlines with four or more flights a day from the airport. A source familiar with the situation said the BAA had threatened to deny airlines the use of airport facilities if they did not comply.

Richard Branson’s Virgin Atlantic criticized the directive, saying it favored airlines such as British Airways which could cut less-lucrative short flights and keep most of its long-haul operations running. Virgin, which only operates long-haul flights, plans to cancel three flights today.

“There is no level playing field,” a Virgin spokesman said.

Airlines are struggling to cope with the BAA’s new security demands, which were imposed after the discovery of a plot to use liquid explosives smuggled on board in carry-on luggage. All passengers now are required to undergo a body search, and they are banned from taking anything into aircraft cabins except essential items such as travel documents.

“If this is maintained, we are likely to continue to see extremely long [lines] and regrettably even more flights canceled,” said Tony Douglas, BAA’s chief executive officer for Heathrow. “Quite simply, I don’t know how long it’s likely to go on, but it’s clearly a set of measures that are unprecedented and by virtue of what they’ve come in to enforce, they’re not sustainable measures.”

British Home Secretary John Reid hinted that the stringent security checks may only be temporary.

“We understand this causes huge inconvenience to the airline operators for instance, the airports and the traveling public,” he told British Broadcasting Corp. television yesterday. “That is why the extraordinary regime that we have had to bring in as a result of extraordinary circumstances is time-limited.”

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