London, Aug. 14: A sign of the times: a British Airways flight bound for New York from London’s Heathrow airport returned from mid-Atlantic because no one would own up to a solitary mobile telephone found ringing on board.
Although the government downgraded the emergency today from “critical” to “severe” and announced some hand luggage, including laptops and personal stereos, could be taken on board, mobile phones remain on the banned list.
On last night’s BA flight 179 to JFK, none of the 217 passengers would admit to owning the offending mobile phone (which may have been left by a passenger on a previous flight).
A businessman on board later said: “When the plane took off a mobile phone started ringing. One and a half hours later, the captain made the decision, having spoken to his company, that we needed to come back.”
A spokesperson for British Airways confirmed: “A mobile phone was located on board the aircraft which none of the passengers appeared to own. The captain assessed the situation with BA’s security team at Heathrow and it was decided that it was safe to continue. However, the captain decided to return to Heathrow as a precaution. The captain explained his decision to the 217 passengers on board the aircraft.”
She added: “We apologise to customers for the inconvenience but their safety is our number one priority and we will always err on the side of caution.”
The flight took off again in the early hours with 152 passengers aboard and reached New York around 8.20 am UK time today.
However, it has increasingly become clear that the kind of stringent checks the government has imposed at Heathrow, the busiest airport in the world, could not be sustained indefinitely.
Faced with a revolt from British Airways, the economy carrier easyJet and other airlines, which saw a plunge in profits because of cancellations, the government has had to moderate the security regime.
Announcing the change from “critical” to “severe”, home secretary John Reid, who has been acting as de facto prime minister in the absence of Tony Blair, stressed there was still a “very serious” risk of a terrorist attack.
The UK has five security threat levels which are designed to give a broad indication of the likelihood of a terrorist attack. They are Low (an attack is unlikely); Moderate (an attack is possible, but not likely); Substantial (an attack is a strong possibility); Severe (an attack is highly likely); and Critical (an attack is expected imminently).
Transport secretary Douglas Alexander announced that the amount of hand luggage normally allowed has been slashed by 50 per cent.
“Since this particular alleged terrorist plan to use a type of liquid explosive to attack passenger aircraft became known to us, government security, scientific and technical experts have been working to design measures to defeat it,” he explained.
Alexander said he accepted that there would be a “degree of confusion” as the new regime was brought into force.
At Heathrow, cancellations were running at 20 per cent of flights, both long and short haul to a variety of destinations. At Gatwick, British Airways had cancelled all its domestic flights, totalling 26, and easyJet had scrapped seven.
From tomorrow, all passengers flying out of Heathrow will be able to take one small cabin bag. However, passengers will not be able to carry cosmetics, toiletries, drinks and any liquids apart from prescribed medicines.
Tony Douglas, chief executive of BAA Heathrow, said he was confident that the reduction of hand searches on passengers from 100 per cent over the past four days to 50 per cent today would “very quickly” reduce the backlog of passengers and “get some normality coming back to Heathrow”.
Once in the departure lounge, passengers may buy drinks and other items to take on board the aircraft, except those travelling to the United States who cannot take any “liquid or gel items” into the cabin.
He emphasised: “If you are travelling to the US, extra restrictions are still in place.”
The reduction in hand luggage will not go down well with Indian passengers who traditionally bend the rules by dragging as much as they can carry on board -- and are allowed to do so by Indian carriers.
Taking mobile phones off Indians will also not go down well. Many like chatting to relatives almost up to the point of take off and switch on their mobiles again as soon as the wheels make contact with the runway.