Terrorist Threats Disrupt Holiday Flights

January 2, 2004

The elevated terrorist threat levels decreed by the Homeland Security Department and the U.S. Transportation Security Administration, coupled with repeated warnings from the FBI, combined to disrupt trans-Atlantic air traffic over the holidays.

A pre-Christmas alert resulted in the cancellation of six Air France flights between Paris and Los Angeles in what now appears to have been a mistake. According to an article in the European Edition of the Wall Street Journal, as reported by Reuters, three of the groundings may have been based on mistaken information.

The FBI reportedly alerted French authorities to the possibility that six suspected militants linked to al Qaeda were planning to hijack an Air France jet. In one case the information apparently confused a child’s name with a suspected member of a Tunisian-based terror group. Another “terrorist” was subsequently identified as a Welsh insurance agent, while a third was identified as “an elderly Chinese woman who once ran a restaurant in Paris.”

French government officials have denied the story, and indicated that they received no names from the U.S. concerning the potential hijackers. Earlier news reports in France, however, indicated that the authorities were seeking at least six named passengers, and had already held and questioned several of them.

In a related incident, U.S. F-16’s reportedly shadowed a number of trans-Atlantic flights as they approached U.S. airspace, including a British Airways flight on Wednesday to Washington D.C. When the plane landed it was towed to a remote part of the airport and the passengers were searched and interrogated before being allowed to disembark. BA also cancelled a flight that was due to leave London for the U.S. capital on Thursday, and said it would consider the ongoing terrorist warnings from the U.S. on a “day to day” basis.

Most commentators, at least in the U.S., have concluded that the extraordinary measures are justified, as the consequences of another hi-jacking could result in a repeat of the Sept. 11 attacks.

While Europeans generally seem to agree with that sentiment, they have also expressed concern over the use of military aircraft to shadow civilian flights, presumably with the implied authority to shoot the plane down if necessary. There’s also widespread disapproval of the U.S. demand that armed security guards be placed on “high risk” flights.

The situation can only complicate matters for the insurance industry, particularly companies who cover the airline industry, as it raises new threats of potential losses and renews the debate over how far the industry can go without government backing in covering airline risks.

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