Passenger Adjustment Period
Security procedures were still evolving at U.S. airports early Friday, with a second layer of check points opening at the airplane gates and National Guard troops arriving to patrol major airports in New York, California and Massachusetts.
After a day of long lines and confusion at many airports, passengers arriving for flights Friday were better prepared for the new prohibition on carrying liquids aboard aircraft.
Rather filling trash cans at the security checkpoints with now-banned makeup, perfume and suntan lotion, travelers were packing those items in their checked luggage instead. That helped shrink the check point lines for domestic flights to lengths closer to normal Friday morning at Miami International Airport, spokesman Greg Chin told The Associated Press.
Security rules were tightest on flights to and from the United Kingdom, including additional luggage checks for passengers arriving on flights to the U.S. Some long lines formed ahead of Miami’s early international departures Friday, but they quickly cleared out, Chin added.
Inside the terrorist plot
British authorities said Thursday they had disrupted a well-advanced “major terrorist plot” to blow up passenger flights between the United Kingdom and the United States using liquid explosives, prompting a full-scale security clampdown at U.S. and British airports and a cascade of delays in both domestic and trans-Atlantic flights, The Washington Post reports.
The plot was well planned, well financed and “well advanced,” U.S. Secretary of Homeland Security Michael Chertoff said at a news conference Thursday morning in Washington. It was “about as sophisticated as anything we’ve seen in recent years as far as terrorism is concerned. This was not a situation with a handful of people sitting around dreaming about terrorist plots.”
London’s Deputy Police Commissioner, Paul Stephenson, said 21 people had been arrested in London and in Birmingham, England, after a months-long investigation into what he said was a plan for “mass murder on an unimaginable scale.” Peter Clarke, chief of the London police department’s anti-terrorism branch, said the investigation reached a “critical point” Wednesday night, requiring immediate disruption of the plot, the arrests and the imposition of heightened security measures, the newspaper reports.
British authorities say the threat involved terrorists who aimed to smuggle liquid explosive material aboard airplanes in hand baggage, including timers and detonators that could be assembled in flight. British Home Secretary John Reid said the operation was aimed at bringing down “a number of aircraft” — reportedly at least ten — “through mid-flight explosions, causing a considerable loss of life.”
Airport threat level at red
U.S. officials raised the “threat level” for air transport to red, the highest alert. The terrorists had intended to target flights to Washington, New York and California operated by American Airlines, Continental Airlines and United Airlines, a U.S. official says. It is the first time the red alert level in the Homeland Security warning system has been invoked, although there have been brief periods in the past when the orange level was applied. Homeland Security defines the red alert as designating a “severe risk of terrorist attacks.”
There were no commercial passenger planes in the air from Britain to the United States when the red alert was issued, FAA Administrator Marion Blakey told The Associated Press. She said three cargo planes aloft from London — two Lufthansa and one UPS plane — were allowed to continue because the threat was focused on passenger planes.
In major U.S. airports, guards armed with rifles stood at security checkpoints, and passengers were met by signs warning that all liquids were now banned from carry-on luggage. Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney said he would send the National Guard in to Boston’s Logan Airport for the first time since the Sept. 11 terror attacks.
Security workers opened every carry-on bag that passed through one terminal at Baltimore/Washington Airport, and all the flights there were delayed.
The ban on items initiated by the Transportation Security Administration applied to all types of beverages, shampoo, toothpaste, hair gels and other items of a similar consistency.
Are we out of the woods?
Chertoff, who was briefed by the British, said the conspirators “had accumulated and assembled the capabilities they needed and they were in the final stages of planning for execution.”
Reid said British officials believe they have “the main players” in custody, but “must always err on the side of caution.” While elevating the threat level, Chertoff said officials had no indication that the plot included attacks based in the United States.
Chertoff said the plan, which he described as “sophisticated,” was indicative of an al-Qaeda operation, but, he said, U.S. and British officials “cannot yet form a definitive conclusion” about al-Qaeda involvement.
American Airlines canceled six Thursday flights between the United States and London to accommodate the delays at Heathrow airport, spokesman John Hotard told wire services.
Reid, who as head of the Home Ministry is equivalent to the U.S. attorney general, said American officials, including President Bush and Chertoff, were contacted early this morning about the decision to disrupt the conspiracy.
The TSA said passengers who need to bring medicine and baby formula on board planes would need to present those items for inspection at checkpoints. In Britain, passengers were being asked to taste these liquids in the presence of security guards. Passengers were also told to expect additional security checks at boarding gates.
Be sure to read the August issue of GOVERNMENT SECURITY, where transportation security issues — including threats to airports and train stations — will be the focus.