For Britons, trip to U.S. will get tougher

But many say they back new anti-terror rules

January 12, 2004|By Todd Richissin | Todd Richissin,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

LONDON -- Not so long ago, when the world seemed a safer place, Britons like Julia and Paul Chattenton would hop on a plane to the United States with little concern beyond how awful the meal would be and whether the flight would be delayed.

Last week, though, as the couple waited for their British Airways flight to New York, they stood in Heathrow Airport more than two hours before their scheduled departure and worried, just a little, about whether they would be allowed into the United States. And they told themselves to remember to call their parents after they checked into their hotel because the United States just isn't safe any more.

Regardless of the accuracy of their perceptions, many Britons, when thinking of the United States, now conjure images not only of the neon of New York or the majesty of the Statue of Liberty or the marvel of the Golden Gate Bridge, but also of a country armed to the teeth against large, undefined threats.

America, to them, is the land where freedoms have been curtailed as never before, a country with people once generalized as affable but hard-working, but now considered almost reclusive because of the security measures -- people who spend an inordinate amount of energy on their idea of self-preservation.

It's not hard to understand why Britons feel this way.

Travelers from this country, the closest ally of the United States, soon will no longer be the welcome far-away neighbors invited to drop by as they wish. Beginning in October, thousands of Britons will be required to travel to the U.S. Embassy in London, submit to an interview about their plans and background and then pay more than $100 for a visa, if one is granted.

That has not set well with the British news media, and the trans-Atlantic tourism industry here fears it could take a beating.

Consider what it will be like for some Britons traveling to the United States:

At the U.S. Embassy in London, they will see streets blocked by concrete barriers to prevent car bombings and a building patrolled by police officers with rifles.

After going through security at local airports, they will be aboard a plane that might have an armed sky marshal among its passengers, at the insistence of the United States. Lines for the lavatory will not be permitted. And then, after landing, they will be fingerprinted and photographed.

"It's a bit off-putting, but overall we'd rather have the security," said Paul Chattenton, 33, preparing for a five-day trip to the Big Apple with his wife.

Britons traveling to the United States have not needed a visa since 1986, but those who obtain a passport beginning in October will. That is because the United States is requiring visas for all people holding passports issued after September if the document does not have a special biometric chip embedded in it, and the British government says it cannot have the technology ready by then.

"Outrage at Act of Aggression from Our Ally as Britons are Treated Like Criminals," read a headline last week from The Express, a London tabloid. "Britons Face Visa Chaos to Get to the U.S." read a headline in The Independent.

"We've gotten all kinds of calls. This has been our cross to bear," said a spokeswoman for the U.S. Embassy in London, who asked not to be identified. "It's more confusion than anger, but people are aware the rules are changing and traveling to the United States ... won't be as easy as it has been."

Britain itself, though, and particularly London, has increased its security drastically over fears of a terrorist attack. Police officers armed with rifles are more common at Britain's airports than skycaps. Last year, after fears that terrorists would use shoulder-launched missiles to shoot down passenger planes, army tanks were stationed at Heathrow.

So, despite the tone of the newspapers, travelers here seem to welcome the security measures -- up to a point. The airlines here are negotiating with pilots reluctant to allow armed sky marshals on their flights. The ban on lines for the lavatory has been ridiculed by comedians here -- Will passengers need to raise their hands to use the loo? -- and newscasters have made mention of the new rules with a grin and a kind of "We're not joking about this one" shrug.

But Sue Corcoran, in line at Heathrow for a flight to Newark, N.J., as police officers patrolled the baggage-check area, said she would be less likely to fly without the tightened security on both sides of the Atlantic.

"It's the day we live in, isn't it?" she said. "We can't give into the terrorists and just not fly, and if we fly, don't we want to do everything possible to be safe?"

Yes, of course, said Lisa Warner, a spokeswoman for Trailfinders, one of Britain's largest travel agencies, but methods need to be found to provide security without scaring away legitimate travelers. So far, her company has had no decline in bookings to the United States, she said, but there is no telling how long that will last.

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