Heathrow Passengers Caught in Crackdown

London's always-busy Heathrow Airport is a scene of chaos, as thousands of passengers are caught up in a massive security crackdown following the news of the foiled plot to blow up airliners. Flights are canceled and delayed, hand luggage is banned, and liquids can no longer be taken on board.

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Thousands of travelers were stranded today at British airports. All inbound flights were delayed for awhile, and many were canceled.

As NPR's Deborah Amos reports, extra security has meant long lines and short tempers.

DEBORAH AMOS reporting:

Heathrow Airport was chaotic today. Thousands of passengers arrived to face uncertain plans. Extra airport officials were on hand to calm jittery travelers, but they were overwhelmed.

Mr. JOSH WOLF (Traveler, Heathrow Airport): It's a madhouse in there.

AMOS: Josh Wolf boarded a plane in Ohio this morning for a vacation with friend Paul Eidenberg, who says arriving passengers were told by flight crews there was something wrong, but little else.

Mr. PAUL EIDENBERG (Traveler, Heathrow Airport): They made an announcement on the plane that there were delays.

AMOS: Did they tell you what it was?

Mr. EIDENBERG: No.

AMOS: When'd you find out?

Mr. EIDENBERG: We got e-mails from colleagues when we were on the tarmac.

AMOS: While some got the news when they turned on their cell phones, Keith Lacey was at his office in London when he heard about the thwarted airline plot. He had no intention of driving out to Heathrow Airport until his family informed him his son was arriving, a family surprise.

Mr. KEITH LACEY (Resident, London): I honestly didn't realize I had anyone affected until my wife informed me later in the morning that my son was actually arriving back from China today. So he's going to be surprised instead.

AMOS: Nigel Smith, an airport driver, was taking passengers on an early morning run when traffic backed up for miles. In the first few hours, he says his customers were hesitant about getting on a plane.

Mr. NIGEL SMITH (Driver, Heathrow Airport): There were a number of passengers who obviously were panicking, but they had to be calmed down and the true British spirit said, we're going. We're not going to stop. And that is the only way to defeat terrorism.

AMOS: British officials took more practical measures, immediately imposing strict new security measures banning all hand luggage. And because one of the elements of the alleged plot involved liquid chemicals, anything in a bottle was forbidden. Audra Moore, on her way to California to Uganda, waited in a long security line to have her baggage checked, dumping her hand-carry in a clear, plastic bag.

Ms. AUDRA MOORE (Airline Passenger, Heathrow Airport): You know, we can't take anything on the plane, nothing. But that's it.

AMOS: So no water, no wine, nothing in a bottle.

Ms. MOORE: No Chap Stick, no books, no nothing.

AMOS: The wait was so long that Sara Hall and her five children settled on the airport floor. Their flight, for a long-planned safari in Africa. Aside from the delays, she said today might be the safest time to travel.

Ms. SARA HALL (Airline Passenger, Heathrow Airport): I actually feel more comfortable. I think the security will be higher today than any other day. I think we'll be better today than any other time. Maybe coming back I might be nervous.

AMOS: Others just gave up on the gridlock at the airport and tried to make the best of it. Paul and Sherry Fishman(ph) flew this morning from Portland, Oregon, on their way to Rome, only to find that all European flights had been cancelled.

Ms. SHERRY FISHMAN (Airline Passenger, Heathrow Airport): And it is chaos, because there are thousands of people with lost luggage now. To get in to see if you can find your luggage, you have to go through all kinds of security, and nothing's being allowed through. And I think we're probably at the end. We're going to a hotel. I think we're going to have a nice cocktail. But I'm really glad that they foiled the plot.

(Soundbite of loudspeaker announcement)

Unidentified Woman: Baggage left unattended will be immediately destroyed.

AMOS: It will take days to clear the schedules, find lost luggage and resume holiday plans. British officials say the heightened security will last only as long as the situation demands, a reminder of what could have been a much bigger disruption of this summer season.

Deborah Amos, NPR News, London.

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