Foiled attack leaves airport chaos in its wake

Monday, December 28, 2009 – Globe and Mail
ANNA MEHLER PAPERNY

International airports were scrambling yesterday to tighten security on U.S. flights, causing passenger chaos on the busiest travel day of the year, in the wake of Christmas Day’s foiled attempt to blow up a Detroit-bound airplane.

U.S. President Barack Obama, on vacation in Hawaii, ordered a review of security protocols and the no-fly list to determine how a man with explosives strapped to his body boarded a flight weeks after the man’s father contacted U.S. authorities to warn them of his son’s growing radicalism.

Jammed airports were a scene of bedlam yesterday as travellers were left waiting in line for hours and rushing to make alternative plans as a slate of ramped-up security measures disrupted connecting flights and slowed departures to a crawl.

But nothing better demonstrated the heightened anxiety in the skies than a case of airsickness that became a national security incident.

When a Nigerian man locked himself in the airplane’s bathroom for about an hour yesterday on the same Amsterdam-Detroit flight that Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab allegedly tried to blow up on Friday, staff on board asked for emergency assistance.

As it turned out, the “disruptive passenger” was a sick businessman who needed to use the washroom. Authorities said yesterday he posed no threat.

In the meantime, travellers in and out of the U.S. are facing stringent security screenings, pat-downs and restrictions on their on-board movement for the foreseeable future, after Friday’s close call was averted only by the adrenaline-driven bravery of passengers on the 278-person flight.

Although a Vancouver Airport spokeswoman said the new security measures, put in place this weekend, will last at least until 2 a.m. Dec. 30, neither Transport Canada nor the U.S. Transportation Security Administration would speculate on how long these new measures would be in place or what would replace them.

In the meantime, the emergency measures were causing pandemonium at airports across Canada yesterday. Passengers faced waits as long as seven hours as they went through lengthy body searches and painstaking checks of slimmed-down carry-on bags.

Reports from Amsterdam’s Schiphol airport that security protocol had been followed correctly raised further concerns that would-be terrorists are moving to exploit an overlooked gap in passenger-screening measures.

It’s reminiscent of Richard Reid’s attempt in 2001 to blow up a plane with the same explosives hidden in his shoes, and, more recently, of a 2006 transatlantic plot to blow up 10 flights from Britain to the U.S. and Canada using liquid explosives. Many of the heightened restrictions prompted by that incident have since been relaxed. But terrorism experts say this latest near-miss could force security authorities to re-examine the way they evaluate threats posed by passengers, and prompt even stricter incarnations of no-fly lists previously criticized for grounding innocent travellers.To simplify airport chaos yesterday, personnel were asking passengers to refrain from bringing carry-on bags with them at all, although few complied and departure lounges were scenes of chaos as harried travellers packed and re-packed their luggage.

A Canadian Air Transport Security Authority screener at Toronto’s Pearson airport said yesterday CATSA staff in the U.S. departures lounge was almost doubled yesterday, and staff were being paid overtime to go through hands-on screenings of tens of thousands of frustrated passengers.

Despite staffing increases to accommodate the confusion, dozens of flights were delayed and several airlines had to cancel flights simply because the new screenings meant travellers weren’t getting through the airport fast enough.

At 5 p.m. yesterday, American Airlines had cancelled 16 of its 36 flights scheduled for that day – largely due to the security measures that a spokesman said was forcing them to “thin out” the schedule.

Air Canada and its affiliate Air Canada Jazz cancelled several short-haul U.S. flights, most of them out of Toronto, due to security delays.

Mark Hansen, a Berkeley professor specializing in aviation security, said the pat-downs now being implemented are helpful but are likely a stop-gap measure, to be replaced with better high-tech ways of detecting non-metal weapons like the plastic explosive pentaerythritol tetranitrate (PETN) that Mr. Abdulmutallab allegedly attempted to detonate on Friday.

But he noted it’s also possible this will prove a temporary flare-up in airport-security paranoia.

“The history is that these things do subside – there’s an immediate reaction and then, as time goes on, the memory fades and the reality of the invasiveness and the inconvenience of strict screening persists. And so we eventually move toward a system that is less stringent.”

With a report from Jane Taber

in Ottawa

THE NEW RESTRICTIONS

Travellers, brace yourselves:

As airports fill with holiday voyagers, passengers can look forward to gruelling waits and stringent screenings. Plan bathroom breaks wisely.

Before boarding: Canadian passengers bound for U.S. destinations can expect security pat-downs and detailed searches of their carry-on bags.

On the plane: Stow your stuff and stay seated – for the last hour of the flight, at least.

THE NEW REALITY

1 Number of carry-on bags passengers are allowed on flights bound for the United States

7 Number of hours some passengers were waiting in line before their departure from Toronto’s Pearson International Airport

138 Number of flights cancelled at Pearson yesterday

Anna Mehler Paperny


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