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Groundless fears

New airline security measures are unlikely to reassure passengers.

Peter Smith

Topics Science & Tech

This is a bit of random text from Kyle to test the new global option to add a message at the top of every article. This bit is linked somewhere.

While checking in for a return flight from Madrid recently, I was asked if I was carrying anything sharp and metallic in my hand luggage. I had a corkscrew (because I had been on a self-catering trip), which was taken from me and thrown into a bin overloaded with metal objects.

We were then ushered through to the departure lounge – where there were about half a dozen duty-free shops. The irony was not lost on our check-in assistant, who pointed out the absurdity of being allowed to carry glass bottles of booze on to a plane after having a corkscrew confiscated. A broken wine bottle in the wrong hands could easily be used as a weapon, just as much as a corkscrew could be.

Post-11 September, these kind of security measures have become commonplace on domestic and international flights. Airports have brought in increasingly stringent security checks, and are confiscating everything from nail files and bottle openers to knitting needles and knives.

Following Richard Reid’s bungled attempt to detonate a shoe bomb on an American Airlines flight from Paris to Miami in December 2001, French airport authorities started scanning passengers’ shoes. Some airline passengers have been subjected to even more intrusive searches, often on the basis of little more than looking scruffy.

Rather than offering real safety to the travelling public, many of these measures are simply cosmetic gestures. The harsh truth is that no security measure can stop someone determined enough from carrying out a crazed, nihilistic attack. Those kind of people will always find holes in security measures, however tight they are – and there is very little that we can do to stop them.

Even worse, the new security measures are more likely to cause alarm than to allay passengers’ fears.

Airlines have always viewed passenger safety as a priority. The International Air Transport Association (IATA) regulations are outlined on all airline tickets, advising passengers not to carry compressed gases, corrosives, explosives, handguns, flammable liquids, and so on. Such advice makes perfect sense to everyone except the most exuberant schoolboy or the odd drunk rock star.

In the 1970s and 80s, largely in response to Palestinian groups and their European offshoots, wider security measures were introduced at airports around the world – including the scanning of luggage and walk-through metal detectors at airports.

The 1988 Lockerbie bombing was another turning point in aviation safety. In response, airlines started checking customers’ luggage against passenger lists much more thoroughly. Again, these measures made sense to most of us, and we now view them as little more than minor inconveniences.

But none of these measures were able to stop the 11 September hijackers, who were able to carry out their attacks because they had studied airline operations and exploited gaps in security guidelines.

For example, the hijackers knew that the planes they targeted would be full of fuel, as they were all morning departures on long-distance journeys from America’s East Coast to its West Coast. They also knew that their card-cutter knives would evade airport security checks. Most importantly, they knew that airlines had trained cabin staff to take hijackers anywhere they demanded, and to land safely in order for the authorities to negotiate a settlement or to storm the plane.

More recently, there have been calls for concealed cameras on planes or above passenger seats and for more thorough check-in procedures. On 19 December 2002, UK transport secretary Alistair Darling announced that armed undercover police officers had been trained for use on UK flights (1).

Many of the airline world’s biggest players are struggling with a post-9/11 downturn in passenger numbers, and reassuring passengers is seen as crucial to reversing this trend. IATA recently warned that the world’s airlines could chalk up losses of $7 billion on international routes this year (2). The Association of British Travel Agents (ABTA) reports that package holiday numbers were down five percent this summer, compared to summer 2001 (3).

But it is difficult to see how many of the new security measures will reassure an already nervous public. If anything, such measures are likely to have a corrosive effect on passengers’ confidence with air travel, by constantly alerting them to the dangers they may face in the skies.

Peter Smith works for a leading independent travel company.

(1) Armed air marshals for UK flights

(2) Airline Industry nightmares come true, Guardian, 29 November 2002

(3) Airline Industry nightmares come true, Guardian, 29 November 2002

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Topics Science & Tech

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