Authorities in several West European countries were reported on increased anti-terrorism alert Thursday, and in Britain stepped-up security measures combined with an influx of Easter vacationers to create long delays at the country’s busiest airport.
The moves followed confirmation of an American warning that three Palestinians may be planning to hijack a U.S. jetliner flying from the Continent.
At London’s Heathrow Airport, embarrassed industry and government officials came under added pressure after the revelation that three young men had been able to board an empty British Airways jumbo jet, take videos of themselves lounging in the cockpit and passenger compartment and leave without being challenged.
Already Under Fire
British authorities are already under fire for their handling of warnings before the bombing of a New York-bound Pan Am flight last December and for repeated breaches exposed since then in airline and Heathrow Airport security. The Pan Am tragedy killed 259 persons in the plane and another 11 in the Scottish village of Lockerbie where the aircraft crashed.
Security was reported stepped up Thursday at airports in England, Italy, Belgium and West Germany after the latest hijacking threat. And a spokesman said Dutch security forces were also on full alert because of the American warning.
No additional precautions were reported at airports in Greece or Spain.
Travel was reported exceptionally brisk because of Easter. In Britain, both today and next Monday are bank holidays, and people intent on a four-day weekend were jamming the highways out of London by early Thursday afternoon.
British Rail put on 200 extra trains to handle the increased holiday demand, and ferries were expecting to carry record numbers of passengers to the European mainland.
Despite the hijack warnings, more than 500,000 passengers were also expected to pass through British airports over the long weekend. Heathrow had already asked passengers on Wednesday to check in 30 minutes earlier than usual because of the heavy traffic and tighter security checks. Passengers were asked not to bring “any unnecessary electronic equipment with them,” said spokeswoman Roz Clark, and also to ensure that their cameras have no film in them when they pass through security.
The bomb that downed Flight 103 was concealed in a radio-cassette player, according to investigators. British airports were warned again just last Monday to be on particular lookout for similar devices.
Heathrow security staff was said to be hand-checking every piece of carry-on baggage Thursday, and the airport was being patrolled by undercover and anti-terrorist officers as well as the usual armed police.
At one point, lines of people waiting to check in at Pan American World Airways and Trans World Airlines desks spilled out of the terminal building and into nearby car parks. Passengers were questioned extensively about their luggage and travel plans, in the manner of the stringent checks used routinely by Israeli security authorities.
Passengers generally appeared understanding of the delays.
“It is all absolutely necessary,” said one man who was traveling with his wife and daughter to visit relatives in the United States. “Anyone who complains must need their head examined. No one will forget Lockerbie, and I would be prepared to wait 10 times longer.”
Started as Prank
In the latest incident raising questions about security at Heathrow, the three young men who sneaked onto the British Airways Boeing 747 said they began their adventure as a prank. But when they saw how easy it was, they said, they were so appalled that they took their video to Britain’s Independent Television News, which showed it as part of an exclusive report on its midday newscast Thursday.
The men, who appeared to be in their late teens or early 20s, said they had climbed a security fence before dawn Monday. Their video showed them clearly scurrying beneath the belly of the jetliner and boarding it by climbing up through an opening in its undercarriage.
One of the three is heard to comment on the tape: “There’s Darren sitting in the captain’s seat. It’s easy to get in. It’s just pure excitement. I just can’t describe what it’s like just walking straight in there and sitting in the cockpit. The cockpit has got to be the biggest thrill--just sitting there.”
Transport Minister Paul Channon later demanded an explanation for the security breach, and British Airways said it will conduct an investigation.
“The airline places utmost importance on safety and security,” it said. “Any alleged breach of security is taken by the airline extremely seriously. It must be clear, however, that the alleged incident took place in the maintenance and not the operational area. The aircraft involved was scheduled for maintenance.”
In a separate statement, the airport authority noted that the breach had occurred in an area under the airline’s control.
“We are, of course, concerned, nevertheless, about any unauthorized access to any premises at Heathrow,” the statement added.
The opposition Labor Party’s “shadow cabinet” transport secretary, John Prescott, charged that the incident is further proof that Channon is “inadequate for the job.”
Added Prescott: “I’m quite appalled, but I’m not shocked. We keep getting assurances that everything is all right at Heathrow, and then we find it’s not. Here these three youngsters get through with a camera, onto a jet, into the cockpit, and they could have easily put explosives into that cockpit.”