11 September 2002

Transatlantic flights are cut back as bookings fall off

By Arifa Akbar

British Airlines have scaled back their transatlantic services today after a dramatic drop in bookings.

British Airways cancelled a third of all its journeys to the United States, with its normal daily provision of 78 return flights pared back to 52. Virgin Atlantic also cancelled three flights to New York, Orlando and Los Angeles, representing a quarter of its normal service.

Germany's Lufthansa and Hong Kong's Cathay Pacific both said they had reduced the number of flights to the United States. However, the British Tourist Authority remained confident that the fall in demand was no more than a blip.

Orla Farren, a spokeswoman for the BTA, said there were reports that some travellers were uneasy but the impact of fewer passengers today would not be significant. "There is bound to be some nervousness on a day such as today when people perhaps prefer to be at home with their families in their own country.

"However, we do not expect any lack of travel relating to the anniversary to be long-lasting," said Ms Farren.

But there was an uncomfortable reminder yesterday of the lengths to which airlines will go to avoid new attacks. BA has launched an investigation after the discovery of a petrol-powered generator on board a flight from Italy forced the pilot to abort the journey.

The Boeing 737 flight carrying 152 people had to be grounded in Naples after cabin crew smelled petrol, which was traced to the generator under a seat in economy class.

It was owned by two men who had been using it to power their electric guitars.

They were questioned by the authorities in Rome, where flight 269 landed, but the men, who are believed to be British musicians, were later released and expected to travel on to London yesterday.

Describing the incident, a BA spokesman said it was "a genuine mistake" made by the men. "There was a smell of petrol on board. That smell was traced to a small petrol- powered generator, which was under a seat.

"The cabin crew told the captain. The captain decided to divert to Rome. All passengers got off and the two gentlemen were spoken to by the authorities there.

"The plane was fully searched and nothing was found. On examination it was found to be a small petrol-powered generator. It was small enough to fit under the seat in front," he said.

The spokesman added that a full investigation into the incident was underway. "We'll take it very seriously and investigate why the petrol was not declared by the passengers, then how it managed to get on board," he said.