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Dispute over marshals canceled flight

Same British Airways flight under scrutiny for four days

British Airways Flight 223 arrives at Washington's Dulles International Airport Saturday night.
British Airways Flight 223 arrives at Washington's Dulles International Airport Saturday night.

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WASHINGTON (CNN) -- A dispute between the British pilots' union and the British government over armed marshals -- not security concerns -- led to the cancellation of Friday's British Airways flight from London to Washington, a Bush administration official said Saturday.

Flight 223 has been the subject of intense scrutiny for four days.

Saturday's flight was delayed 3.5 hours at the request of U.S. security officials who wanted more information about it, airline officials said. It landed at Washington's Dulles International Airport without incident at 9:13 p.m.

Thursday's flight was canceled because of security concerns, according to British and U.S. officials. On Wednesday, it was escorted to Dulles airport by U.S. fighter jets.

The officials said intelligence from an informant and other sources involving the flight number suggested the flight could be a terrorist target.

A Bush administration official said the flight was canceled Friday because of a dispute between the British Air Line Pilots Association and the British government over carrying armed marshals on flights.

The British government recently announced it would require armed undercover marshals on some international flights.

The union opposes the rule, saying flying with armed marshals is dangerous. The group says the money should instead be spent on improving ground security.

The union said pilots agreed that if a credible threat were to emerge for one of their flights, they would cancel rather than fly with a marshal aboard.

The group said the dispute was the reason Fight 223 was canceled both days. The U.S. administration official said the dispute contributed to only Friday's cancellation.

The United States and Britain were prepared to allow the flight to take off, but pilots refused to travel with a marshal aboard, the official said.

Flight 223 was disrupted for the fourth time on Saturday. The flight ultimately took off several hours late.

It was not announced whether Saturday's flight had a marshal aboard. The British government has said it will not announce which flights carry marshals.

The pilots union has begun talks with airlines to reach agreements on allowing marshals aboard trans-Atlantic flights.

One airline -- Virgin Airways -- signed a deal with the British government Wednesday.

The agreement calls for the marshal to be introduced to the pilot and other crew members, and for the marshal's weapon to be approved.

It also states that marshals be former members of a police force, that their training program will be approved by the union, and that the flight captain remains the ultimate authority.

Several other international flights also have been affected in the past two days by the security concerns, but none more so than Flight 223. (Full story)

U.S. officials said there was some question about the credibility of the intelligence information, which they said had nothing to do with the passenger list but focused instead on the flight number. Still, they said the U.S. government would not take chances.

Asa Hutchinson, U.S. undersecretary for border and transportation security, said Friday that such cancellations of international flights would not take place without "specific intelligence" indicating a possible attack.

"We make the judgments based upon the security measures that are in place, the risk that's assessed, coordination with the other government -- and I think we've made some really good decisions," he said.

Hutchinson would not elaborate on the intelligence.

Administration officials said Saturday that Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge spoke with British Home Secretary David Blunkett on Friday about how to expedite the scrutiny of passenger manifests and minimize inconvenience to passengers.

The officials said the phone call lasted about 20 minutes and was "very productive."

CNN's Kelli Arena and Jeanne Meserve contributed to this report.


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