U.S. military community mostly escapes major disruptions in U.K.
Stars and Stripes August 11, 2006
RAF MILDENHALL, England — Members of the American military community mostly escaped the major disruptions that shook the region Thursday after British police foiled what they called a terror plot to bomb commercial airliners flying from the United Kingdom to the U.S.
Operations at the two major bases in England — RAFs Mildenhall and Lakenheath — were unaffected by Thursday’s events, which crippled commercial air travel in and out of England for hours and raised the country’s terror alert to its highest level, “critical.”
“On Lakenheath, it’s business as usual,” said Senior Airman Michael Hess, a spokesman the 48th Fighter Wing and RAF Lakenheath. Base officials said they could not discuss whether U.S. forces in England had any specific security response to the airline threat, but said neither was under an elevated alert level.
“We cannot discuss specific security measures. However, we will remain vigilant to ensure the highest level of security to protect our resources and personnel,” Hess said.
As of Thursday afternoon, the U.S. European Command had not issued any travel restrictions for servicemembers in Europe, and was advising them to keep updated with information posted on Britain’s Department for Transport’s Web site (http://www.dft.gov.uk).
The exposure of the terror plan caused massive delays and widespread flight cancellations at Heathrow Airport. Other airports in England also seized up with congestion as officials struggled with the fallout of the news and new security measures, including an instant ban on all hand luggage.
At London’s Stansted Airport, the closest airport to the U.S. military community in the U.K., there were dozens of cancellations, including all of discount airline Easy Jet’s flights.
Heightened security translated to restricting the terminal entrance to all vehicles except taxis and public transportation. Police roadblocks included vans equipped with video cameras to videotape vehicles driving past the airport.
Three American international students bound for Venice but waylaid at Stansted took the day’s foiled terror plot, heightened security and grounded aircraft in stride.
Lilangi Ediriwickrema, 22, Raina Wallace, 19, and Sophia Sherry, 23, left Oxford to find their Ryanair flight canceled at Stansted.
The women rebounded by booking a Friday flight to Milan out of London’s fourth airport, Luton.
“It’s all part of the experience,” Wallace said. “It will be a good summer story.”
But behind the laissez-faire veneer of a European summer trip with good friends, the women shared in concern for a future fraught with even more heightened security measures and alerts.
“I am more nervous to fly home to the States,” Sherry said. “Our parents are nervous.”
According to Britain’s Department for Transport, only wallets and wallet-sized purses, travel documents, prescription medicine, baby food and several other small items are allowed in airplane cabins for the present time, and all passengers are required to be hand-searched before boarding.
The delays backed up air travel to numerous destinations in Europe, though U.S. military members appeared to come through mostly unscathed. Representatives from several SATOTravel offices — the authorized travel agent for military members in Europe — reported few calls of stranded passengers or people affected by canceled flights.
“Everyone’s still checking into their flights,” said agent Michelle Bryant at RAF Mildenhall. “People are still going ahead with travel.”
Bryant said, however, that several England-based customers had been stranded in Stuttgart, Germany, because of the flight cancellations.
RTT Travel at Ramstein Air Base received eight calls as of Thursday afternoon from people wondering about their travel options. The travel agency is giving callers the direct number to the airlines they are booked on to determine what their airline is doing.
Travelers planning to fly to the U.K. or the States were urged to hold off if they can.
“Today, I would suggest waiting a little bit,” said Gisela Paulus, RTT Travel manager at Ramstein. “If you don’t have to fly, stay put and wait for things to calm down.”
Passengers were allowed to check in for flights to London Heathrow from Frankfurt International in Germany, but at least four of those flights were canceled by 3 p.m. and one had already been rescheduled for 8 a.m. the following day.
Security measures were also stepped up at airports in Italy, according to ANSA, an Italian wire news service.
At the Naples International Airport, representatives told Britain-bound passengers to tuck carry-on items into their luggage long before they reached check-in counters.
“I got the advance notice that they weren’t allowing it, so I put all my carry-on into my suitcase,” said Mike Crowly, 41, an employee with defense contractor Lockheed Martin near Naples.
Thursday’s check-in process in Naples went smoother than he anticipated, he said. He’s bracing for Friday, when he travels from London to Fort Worth, Texas, he said.
For those caught by flight cancellations due to the threat, SATOTravel agents said they were referring customers to individual airlines for rebooking or refund information.
Reporters Sandra Jontz, Matt Millham, Bryan Mitchell, Steve Mraz, and Geoff Ziezulewicz contributed to this report.