Flight 223 to Dulles Canceled -- Again

By Sara Kehaulani Goo
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, February 13, 2004

For the fifth time in six weeks, British Airways yesterday canceled Flight 223, scheduled to depart Sunday from London's Heathrow Airport to Washington's Dulles International Airport. The U.S. Department of Homeland Security indicated that cancellations for security reasons are likely to become more common.

In addition to Flight 223, British Airways canceled Flight 263 scheduled for Monday from London to Riyadh, Saudi Arabia.

U.S. government officials said that one concern is that terrorists might try to hide bomb components or weapons aboard a British Airways flight from Saudi Arabia to London, then seek to transfer them to a London-to-U.S. flight.

U.S. Department of Homeland Security spokesman Dennis Murphy said he could not confirm that specific concern. U.S. officials shared intelligence information about air security threats with the British government before the airline made its decision to cancel the flights, he said. The agency said it had no plans to raise the threat level in the United States.

"Every now and again, there are going to be flights canceled for security reasons," Murphy said. "It's going to be part of our normalized process."

Homeland Security said its intelligence is becoming more specific and that its analytical capabilities are improving. The cancellations are the result of the agency's ability to quickly notify foreign governments of potential threats, Murphy said.

Some passengers said they are growing weary of flight cancellations, which have numbered 29 since the beginning of the year.

Ron Goor, a Bethesda resident who had seats on a British Airways flight to London in May, said he doesn't have confidence that the airline will get him to his destination on time, or at all.

"God knows how many more cancellations there are going to be," Goor said. "There's something about this route that's obviously prompting this. . . . Whether it's for real or not, the point is the flights aren't going."

Flight 223 has been canceled and delayed more than any other flight since terror threats first prompted a wave of cancellations of inbound international flights during the Christmas holidays. British Airways officials, concerned that the focus on the flight has something to do with its number, are discussing whether to change the number or slightly alter the departure time, an aviation source said.

Flights have been canceled on British Airways, Air France, Aeromexico and Continental airlines. Sixteen flights were canceled over the Christmas and New Year's holidays on British Airways, Air France and Aeromexico; 10 flights were canceled on British Airways, Air France and Continental on Feb. 1-2. Only one domestic flight, a Continental flight from Dulles to Houston scheduled to arrive during the Super Bowl, has been canceled for security reasons.

Goor, who paid $1,000 for his tickets on British Airways for himself and his wife to attend a wedding in May, said the airline rejected his request for a full refund, so he bought tickets on Delta Air Lines to London as a backup.

British Airways is offering refunds or rescheduling passengers on flights that are canceled for security reasons, spokesman John Lampl said, but it will not offer refunds for future flights. He said the airline was able to accommodate all of the 184 passengers scheduled for Sunday's flight to Washington on its two other daily flights from London to Dulles or at later dates.

Flight 222, the return flight from Washington to London that normally uses the same aircraft as Flight 223, will still operate on Sunday because the carrier arranged for another aircraft to take its place.

"We can re-accommodate everybody on the other two flights, so we're still getting the revenue" for the flight, Lampl said. "It's really an inconvenience to our passengers."

U.S. airlines could wind up being a beneficiary of the cancellations if U.S. travelers become fearful of foreign carriers and instead opt to fly U.S. airlines. "People only fly if they feel safe. A lot of European airlines are losing share to U.S. airlines," said Helane Becker at the Benchmark Co.

Staff writers John Mintz and Keith L. Alexander contributed to this report.

© 2004 The Washington Post Company