Air travelers should expect long lines and departure delays of up to an hour heading into the weekend as San Francisco International Airport clamps down on security after an alleged bomb plot was foiled in London.
The delays are the result of arrests made in the United Kingdom in connection with a plot to smuggle liquid explosives onto airplanes disguised as beverages and other common carry-on items. The threat specifically targeted flights between England and the United States involving American Airlines, Continental and United Airlines, the last of which is based in San Francisco, officials said.
In response, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security raised the nation’s threat level to its highest in years — severe, or red, for commercial flights bound for the United States from the United Kingdom, according to a statement by Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff. The department also raised the nation’s threat level to high, or orange, for all commercial flights operating in or destined for the United States.
Security measures forced airline passengers to dispose of any carry-on liquids or gels, including toothpaste, shampoo, sunblock and makeup. In addition, random car inspections were implemented at SFO and teams of three to four explosives-sniffing dogs patrolled luggage, Air Train and terminals.
SFO officials plan to continue with increased staffing levels, including bringing in additional baggage screeners through the weekend, according to SFO duty manager Dan D’Innocenti.
Screening passengers usually takes an average of six minutes, but on Thursday it was taking at least an hour, deputy airport manager Doug Lyon said.
Heading into the airport’s two busiest days for departures, Friday and Saturday, travelers should anticipate delays and arrive two to three hours early for domestic flights and three to four hours ahead for international flights, according to D’Innocenti.
While there were no canceled flights Thursday, about 60 percent of departing flights were late, some up to an hour, which affected about 37,000 passengers, according to SFO.
Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger ordered 300 National Guardsmen to the state’s three busiest airports — SFO, LAX and Oakland.
Maj. Gen. William Wade of the National Guard said the guardsmen would be in place by Thursday evening and their duties would vary based on what the airports’ needed.
“I have ordered the redeployment of security assets to high-priority locations to respond to this threat — these assets include bomb-sniffing dogs, the California National Guard and the California Highway Patrol, in concert with local and federal law enforcement agencies,’’ Schwarzenegger said in the statement.
The National Guard troops will remain at airports until the threat level returns to yellow,
The public can also rest assured that more air marshals are flying in and out of the nation’s largest airports, including SFO and LAX, D’Innocentisaid.
“Right now, we’re basing our security on a worst-case scenario,” D’Innocenti said. Exactly how long the heightened security level would be maintained isn’t known and depends on the risk assessment at the national level, he added.
The restrictions are expected to continue for the foreseeable future; some may even become permanent, D’Innocenti said.
At Oakland International, 45-minute delays at the check-in counter were further exasperated by an early-morning power outage that lasted about two hours, according to Rosemary Barnes, a spokeswoman for the airport. No flights were canceled or diverted.
San Jose International Airport also dealt with delays of up to 45 minutes, according to airport spokesman Steve Luckenbach.
Staff writer Sajid Farooq contributed
to this report.