Thursday, January 13, 2005

U.S. Alert Prompts British Plane to Turn Back
U.S. Alert Prompts British Plane to Turn Back
Passenger Carrying French Passport Is Questioned in London and Released

By Glenn Frankel and Sara Kehaulani Goo
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, January 13, 2005; Page A16

LONDON, Jan. 12 -- A British Airways jet flying from London to New York turned back three hours into its trip Wednesday after U.S. authorities objected to one of its passengers on national security grounds.

Flight 175, a Boeing 747 with 239 passengers aboard, returned to Heathrow Airport, according to Richard Goodfellow, a British Airways spokesman. The passenger, who was carrying a French passport, was questioned by British police and released. British officials did not disclose his name or offer any further description.

British Airways said that the plane, which was given a new crew and refueled, took off again for John F. Kennedy International Airport on Wednesday evening. "We want to emphasize there was no safety threat to the aircraft at any time," Goodfellow said.

An official at the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said the passenger was a man of Moroccan origin. Agency officials said they were confident he was a "positive match" with a person on the no-fly list that the U.S. government maintains to keep people deemed terrorism threats off passenger aircraft. The officials declined to provide details about why he was placed on the list.

A U.S. security official said British Airways probably did not have the most up-to-date no-fly list because the Department of Homeland Security recently changed the way it is distributed to airlines.

The name in question was added to the list in December, the official said. Normally, the airline would have realized before the flight departed that the passenger's name was a positive match and stopped him from boarding.

British Airways was given the option of diverting the flight to Bangor, Maine, the landing spot for most inbound transatlantic flights with such problems. Instead, it chose to return the plane to London, according to Yolanda Clark, a spokeswoman for the Transportation Security Administration.

Last January, several British Airways flights to Washington Dulles International Airport were canceled or delayed at Heathrow at the request of U.S. officials following intelligence warnings that they might be carrying terrorists. No one was arrested, nor were the cancellations officially explained.

In September, a United Airlines flight to Washington carrying Yusuf Islam, the British singer formerly known as Cat Stevens, was diverted to Bangor, and he was detained briefly and sent back to London on national security grounds. Islam said he believed he ended up on a no-fly list because of a spelling error and asked his lawyers to pursue the matter. Secretary of State Colin L. Powell said the case would be reviewed.

Goo reported from Washington.