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7 Incidents in a Day Show Air Travel Anxiety Is Up

Times Staff Writer

Amid renewed anxiety about air travel and tough new regulations about what passengers may bring on planes, at least seven U.S. flights were involved in security incidents Friday. In one case, a stick of dynamite was found to have been aboard a flight.

The series of events, safety consultants and others said, reflected heightened emotions and appropriately tightened security in the wake of an alleged plot to blow up transatlantic airliners that was thwarted this month by British authorities.

“I think it’s a combination of both,” said Douglas Laird, a Reno-based consultant to the airline industry and former longtime security director for Northwest Airlines. “I think there is a heightened awareness of what happened in London, and that causes some people to overreact.”

In what may have been Friday’s most serious incident, authorities said a college student’s checked luggage on a Continental Airlines flight from Argentina was found to contain a stick of dynamite after it landed in Houston en route to Newark, N.J.

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A bomb-sniffing dog at the international-arrivals area at George Bush Intercontinental Airport detected an explosive substance in a suitcase. It belonged to a man who told Houston authorities that he worked in mining and often handled explosives.

Howard McFarland Fish, 21, was in federal custody. His actions were determined not to be terrorism-related, according to Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

The flight continued to Newark without Fish or his baggage and was swept again for explosives upon landing, officials said.

Three U.S. aircraft -- from American Airlines, U.S. Airways and Continental Airlines -- made emergency landings Friday.

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A Transportation Security Administration spokesman said American Airlines Flight 55, bound for Chicago from Manchester, England, was diverted to Bangor, Maine, because of “a reported threat to the aircraft while it was en route.”

FBI spokeswoman Gail Marcinkiewicz in Boston said she was unable to specify the nature of the alleged threat but confirmed that the FBI was participating in an investigation in Bangor. “We aren’t going to give out any of the details,” she said. “Until all of it is taken care of, we can’t comment.”

Marcinkiewicz said the plane was diverted to Bangor because it is the northernmost major airport in the U.S. She said the plane carrying 188 passengers landed at about 12:45 p.m. Friday.

A TSA spokesman said that “given the current threat level, the agency, in conjunction with other federal authorities, took prudent action to ensure the security of passengers and crew.” The spokesman said TSA dogs searched the plane.

Also Friday, a U.S. Airways jet bound for Charlotte, N.C., from Phoenix made a forced landing in Oklahoma City after a federal air marshal reportedly subdued an unruly passenger. Authorities declined to give details.

And after the crew of Continental Flight 2258 discovered a missing panel in a lavatory, the plane bound for Bakersfield from Corpus Christi, Texas, was diverted to El Paso, according to the TSA.

The plane carrying 50 passengers was held for about four hours before officials determined there was no danger. “The passengers were interviewed, and the aircraft was thoroughly inspected with all the tools at our disposal, including canine teams,” said Pat Abeln, director of aviation at El Paso International Airport. “At the end of the day, this was a precautionary event that turned out to be a nonevent.”

In three other incidents, a utility knife was found aboard a parked U.S. Airways plane in Connecticut, takeoff of a United Airlines flight in Chicago was delayed after concern about a possible bomb, and in Ireland, an Aer Lingus plane from the U.S. was evacuated after it landed.

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Authorities in Hartford, Conn., boarded U.S. Airways Flight 554 from Philadelphia after a passenger found a utility knife on a vacant seat. No arrests were made, and no threats issued, state police said. Police and the FBI were investigating whether the knife had been left by a worker or by a passenger.

At Chicago’s O’Hare Airport, a flight attendant aboard United Flight 686 overheard a minor say he had a bomb and alerted the pilot, who taxied to a secure part of the airport. The minor’s mother and the minor were removed from the plane, and it was searched, an FBI official said. After bomb-sniffing dogs found no explosives, the flight, which was on a layover between Portland, Ore., and New York’s LaGuardia Airport, was allowed to continue.

And in Ireland, an Aer Lingus plane from New York was evacuated at Shannon Airport after police received a call early Friday claiming that “some sort of device” was on board. Police found nothing suspicious, Aer Lingus officials said, and the plane returned to service.

Aviation security has increased dramatically since British intelligence services announced Aug. 10 that they had broken up a plan to destroy transatlantic airliners with liquid explosives. Two dozen people were arrested, four of whom have been released.

The disclosure caused chaos at airports in Britain, where more than 2,380 flights were canceled in the week after the alleged plot was revealed. Many passengers on flights from Britain were allowed no hand luggage beyond clear plastic bags containing vital documents and occasionally, small amounts of money.

U.S. transportation officials responded by introducing strict restrictions on carry-on objects. Water bottles were banned, as were deodorant, lip gloss, mascara and other cosmetics. Products containing gel, such as shoe inserts and some brassieres, also were prohibited.

Corey Caldwell, a spokeswoman for the Assn. of Flight Attendants-CWA, said Friday that the ramped-up precautions were “long overdue,” and that there was nothing excessive about the new mood in the skies.

“The U.S. aviation system depends on layered security,” she said. “The more that we can put in place to ensure the safety inside the aircraft cabin, the safer our aviation system will be.”

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Caldwell conceded that passenger disturbances were nothing new. She said rowdy or boisterous behavior that in the past might have been overlooked now is viewed in a new light.

“We are in a new day and age,” she said. “And we have seen the deadly effect that normal household objects can create in the hands of the wrong people.

“The U.S. aviation system is not something that can be jeopardized.”

Ann Davis, a TSA spokeswoman in Boston, acknowledged that tighter security has inconvenienced travelers and made them more anxious.

“I think the elevated threat level over the last few weeks has reminded travelers that the threat to aviation is still very real,” Davis said.

“We continue to emphasize the importance of coming to the airport prepared for screening and educating oneself on the restrictions to ensure that the inconveniences are minimal,” she said. “But any time we have actionable information, we need to take every precaution to ensure the safety of the travelers.”

But security consultant Laird said aviation officials often overreact after real or perceived threats.

“This is common following an event. This reoccurs again and again,” he said. “And every time it turns out to be a nonthreat, so to speak, I think that in a sense the terrorists can sit back and sort of chuckle, and say, ‘We’ve really put them into a spin.’ ”

Laird said Friday’s incidents underscored the need for improved security training for all flight personnel. “We need to give them enough training -- more training.”

Times staff writers Steve Chawkins in Los Angeles and P.J. Huffstutter in Chicago contributed to this report. Associated Press also contributed.


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