Security scare on President's flight
By Neville de Silva
SriLankan Airlines' flight UL 504 due to leave London Heathrow at 9.45 on Wednesday night was already boarded. Most of the passengers travelling to Colombo and farther did not know it was a VIP flight. On board were President Chandrika Kumaratunga and her daughter Yasodara who had just graduated in medicine from St George's University in Britain.

President Kumaratunga, already settled down in business class seat 1A, was glancing through some newspapers. Daughter Yasodara next to her mother in seat 1C had also picked up some reading matter. The captain of the flight had introduced himself to the president and all seemed ready for departure.

Minutes passed but the flight was not moving out of its bay at Gate 2. Then an announcement came over the intercom. Sorry for the delay in the departure, said the captain. It appeared there was some "discrepancy" in the number of passengers.

Nobody seemed to take much notice of it. Perhaps SriLankan had got its arithmetic wrong. Maybe a passenger was still lingering in the Duty Free shops. It is known to happen. A few minutes delay is not the end of the world, particularly when most passengers were going home.

A drink seemed to be in order while we waited. Newspapers rustled, pillows were patted, all ready for the 10 ½ hour flight. Suddenly High Commissioner Faisz Musthapha walked into the business class cabin and leaned over seat 1C to talk to the President. A foreign couple seated in the same row as the president glanced in their direction and returned to their guidebook on Sri Lanka, not knowing, of course, that it was the Sri Lankan President, listening attentively to her high commissioner.

About three minutes later Mr Musthapha left the cabin. But still there was no signs of the flight moving out of its bay. Ten minutes or so passed and a rather agitated high commissioner returned to speak to President Kumaratunga. He was followed by deputy high commissioner Kshenuka Seneviratne and a couple of minutes later by the High Commission's Protocol Officer Sunil Moonesinghe.

At this point President Kumaratunga's security chief Nihal Karunaratne was engaged in an animated conversation with the high commission staff and the president.

Next moment the president and her daughter were hurried out of the plane. Security chief Kurunaratne ordered the other presidential security staff to pick up their hand baggage and leave the plane.

The rest of the passengers in business class now sensed something was wrong. Passengers in the first rows in the economy class would by then have noticed the president leave the flight.

Then all passengers were ordered to de-plane. The flight Captain tried to calm agitated passengers saying that because of the high security alerts operating, there would be a thorough security sweep of the aircraft.

But it is easier said than done. Apparently British authorities had to grant permission for passengers already on board to de-plane. Anyway they eventually did. Had this something to do with the passenger discrepancy announced earlier?

It did indeed. A woman passenger had checked in for flight UL 504. Her baggage was already on board. But at the very last moment, she decided not to travel on that flight, or so the story that now gathered momentum and possibly embellishment, went.

Naturally suspicions were roused, given previous incidents where terrorists had checked in or inter-lined baggage without boarding the flight. With London on high security, particularly Heathrow Airport, for possible terrorist attacks, security operations went into high gear as the aircraft was placed under surveillance while a search was conducted.

President Kumaratunga and her party were taken to the VIP lounge while the other passengers who had disembarked waited near the departure gate. What of the woman who caused the wheels of high-tech security to start turning fast?

As I left the aircraft to await the all clear, I noticed a woman standing aside just outside holding on to a drag-bag and looking rather frightened. She could have been in her later 20 or early 30s, I could not really tell from a momentary look.

What multiplied the suspicions of SriLankan airline staff and security personnel was her story which, of course, I heard second hand. She had had a quarrel with her husband and decided to go 'home', whichever part of Sri Lanka that was. Having got to Heathrow and checked in, she had second thoughts when it came to board the flight. She decided not to go.

This caused consternation among airline staff and others because her baggage, I was told but cannot swear to it, was already on board. No doubt she would have been grilled by security at Heathrow. The flight eventually left about 1 ½ hours late, generally an uneventful flight, except perhaps for young Yasodara coming home after graduation and watching the aircraft touch down from the cockpit.

A BBC producer hoping to do a series on the work of airport staff , was observing all tensed activity. No doubt she would have an interesting tale to tell. The moral of the story is that you should not quarrel with your husband, especially if you chose to be on the same flight with the President.

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