AIRCRAFT under threat from terrorists will be diverted to a Scottish airport under controversial plans to protect the London Olympics from an attack.
Strathclyde Police plan to deploy a round-the-clock specialist presence at Prestwick airport, after being told flights will no longer be allowed to land at Stansted if there is intelligence of a criminal threat. If there is a bomb alert, an attempted hijacking or intelligence that the plane could be hijacked, an aircraft is diverted so it does not pass over highly populated areas. During the Olympics, such planes will be sent to Prestwick.
Strathclyde taxpayers already face a £1.2 million bill for policing Olympic football matches at Hampden Park.
Now that is expected to rise by hundreds of thousands of pounds to cover the extra police presence at the airport.
The news comes as the Ministry of Defence revealed plans for up to 13,500 military personnel to bolster security at the Games. They are expected to be joined by 800 police officers from Scotland, who will travel south to assist security efforts.
The increased burden on Strathclyde taxpayers has sparked criticism, coming so soon after the London 2012 Organising Committee (Locog) said an extra £41m was to be spent on the opening ceremony.
At present, flights coming to the UK from the west that are considered at risk of terrorist attack are diverted to Prestwick, while those travelling from the east are diverted to Stansted
However, in the build-up to the Olympics, and as long as the Games are on, Stansted will not be used.
The Department of Transport is understood to be considering an alternative airport in the north-east of England but so far has not decided on one. Strathclyde Police are preparing for a situation where Prestwick could be the only one. No soldiers will be deployed as part of the operation.
Strathclyde Chief Constable Stephen House, who revealed the plans at yesterday’s police authority meeting, said: “Currently, the UK has two airports where aeroplanes are taken to if there is some type of incident – Stansted and Prestwick.
“However, Locog has told us that, due to everything happening in London, Stansted will not be used.
“We cannot operate on a basis where something happens at Prestwick and we then scramble down there – we will have to have large numbers based there.
“Throughout the entire envelope of the Olympics – a fairly extended time, which will not just cover the Games themselves – we are going to have to provide a high level of security at Prestwick. That’s going to cost.
“The UK government is looking for another airport in the north of England, but we will still have to provide this extra police presence at Prestwick.”
Police are preparing for the terror threat to rise during the Olympics. The threat level was reduced from “severe” to “substantial” in July, for the whole of the UK, and has not been raised since.
Counter-terrorism chiefs say there are no plans to raise the threat level for the Olympics, although this could change.
But Strathclyde Police is determined not to be seen as a weak link in the UK’s security presence, and plans to have high-profile firearms teams deployed around venues, training camps and accommodation used by athletes and dignitaries during next year’s Games.
Assistant Chief Constable Colin McCashey, counter-terrorism co-ordinator for the Association of Chief Police Officers in Scotland, said: “We are continuing to monitor the risks associated with the Olympics, and plans will be put in place accordingly.”
However, there is anger that, at a time when Scottish police forces are facing annual cuts of about £4m, the Olympics is creating an additional drain on funding and officer numbers.
Allan Falconer, vice-convener of Strathclyde Police Authority, said: “Last week, the Olympic committee announced they would be spending an extra £41m on the opening ceremony. And yet we in Strathclyde are having to pick up the bill for the football and the airport security.
“Myself, and other members, were concerned that Prestwick Airport will now have to be policed 24/7 with specialist officers. That’s going to cost, and we’ve had no notification that we are going to be reimbursed.
“In these austere times, it’s ridiculous that we are asking taxpayers to pick up the tab.”
Christopher Mason, a member of the police authority, said: “The chief constable has told us that if Prestwick is to be the only airport used [for diverted flights], we will have to have a full team on standby there for the whole of the Olympics.”
He added: “There seems to be this idea that up north there is this great untapped reserve of police potential, and that we are very happy to send people to London. But if we send 400 officers to London, we are cutting back at the margins, and it is at the margins that it pinches.
“Our priority is to provide a police force to protect the citizens of Strathclyde. To take 5 per cent of our bobbies off to London, I’m not sure that is a good idea.”
The Department for Transport denied a decision had been taken on diverted flights.
A spokeswoman said: “The safety of the travelling public is paramount and we will not allow this to be compromised.
“Given the high volume of traffic expected during the course of the Olympics, we are currently reviewing our aviation contingency plans for the duration of the Games. No decisions have yet been taken, although we do not comment on the specifics of our security arrangements for obvious reasons.”
The MoD has revealed that Typhoon jets and HMS Ocean, the largest ship in the Royal Navy’s fleet, will be deployed to protect the Games.
Initial estimates that a 10,000-strong security force would be needed have dramatically increased to 23,700 after an in-depth venue-to-venue analysis.
The 13,500 deployment across all the military services is significantly higher than the 7,000 that had been widely expected.
Defence Secretary Philip Hammond said: “These numbers will be in addition to the ceremonial role which the armed forces will play during the Olympics.
“This defence contribution is on a similar scale to that deployed at other recent Olympic Games and will contribute to ensuring a safe, secure and enjoyable 2012 Olympics.”
He said operations in Afghanistan and elsewhere would not be affected by the deployment.