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Flying lows

The airline industry has been forced to the frontline in the 'war on terror'.

Peter Smith

Topics Politics

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Since 9/11, the airline industry has been at the forefront of America and Britain’s security campaigns (1).

Following the cancellation of British Airways flight 223 from London to Washington at the start of the New Year, UK transport secretary Alistair Darling warned that air passengers should expect security-related delays for ‘years to come’ (2). Earlier this week flight 223 was allowed to depart, but only after rigorous security checks had been carried out. Over the Christmas period, six Air France flights from Paris to Los Angeles and a number of flights to the USA from Mexico were also cancelled.

It has been clear for some time that America has been planning a tougher line over immigration and travel issues. In December 2003, this became official when Homeland Security officials raised the national threat level to orange, indicating a high risk of attack.

From 1 January 2004, US Immigration commenced the US-VISIT programme for people travelling to America on a visa. This will allow immigration to collect ‘biometric’ information – electronic fingerprints and photographs – from arriving visitors. America also recently announced, quite suddenly, that most incoming international flights should carry armed marshals. It seems that airlines have been put centre stage in the ‘war on terror’.

The Americans no doubt were expecting immediate compliance to their new measures. But many European governments and airlines have failed to toe the line. German-owned Thomas Cook Airlines UK, the largest European charter carrier, has said that it will cancel any flight to the USA rather than allow an armed marshal on board. Soon after, the governments of Denmark, Finland, Portugal and Sweden made similar announcements.

Here in the UK there is intense negotiation between the government, the British pilots’ union BALPA and British Airways over the introduction of armed marshals. BALPA is firmly against the idea, arguing that the presence of marshals would likely ‘endanger lives rather than improve safety’ (3).

BALPA spokesman Jim McAuslan suggested that the delaying of BA flight 223 was part of a concerted effort by US authorities to force the British governments hand over the introduction of armed marshals – a charge Alistair Darling has vigorously denied (4).

True or not, the demands of America’s Department of Homeland Security have brought out tensions between America and Europe – and also between America and Brazil, whose authorities have reportedly started fingerprinting all visiting Americans in retaliation for America’s new and stringent immigration checks (5).

In a more bizarre twist, the Australian carrier Qantas Airways announced that passengers have been banned from gathering near the toilets on flights to America. John Anderson, the Australian transport minister, described the ban as ‘a little bit hard to handle’ (6). Surely the understatement of the year so far?

The US and indeed the British authorities are increasingly organising air transport policy around the central principle of precaution. It seems that every plane is now considered a potential weapon of mass destruction. British foreign secretary Jack Straw defends Britain’s recent security clampdowns, arguing that ‘we make our own judgements on the basis of expert analysis by our brilliant security and intelligence services’ (7). So brilliant that flight 223 was delayed for five days for little apparent reason, other than that US officials demanded it.

America and Britain will no doubt argue that a safety-first approach is essential, and that to suggest otherwise is irresponsible. However, the result of recent measures is an airline industry in a permanent state of anxiety, which reacts to the smallest rumour or security information tidbit. There is little need for actual terrorist activity today, when rumours are enough to ground flights.

In the past, terrorist groups would have hijacked or bombed a plane in order to cause disruption. Today it seems they can bring transatlantic air travel to a standstill by placing some idle gossip on a chat site (preferably in Arabic), referencing a British or American or French flight number.

Peter Smith works for a leading independent travel company.

Read on:

Chatter, chatter everywhere, by Brendan O’Neill

Marshalling public fears, by Brendan O’Neill

(1) Scared out of the sky, by Peter Smith

(2) Air alert delays ‘to last years’, BBC News, 4 January 2004

(3) ‘UK transport secretary defends use of air marshals’, Kevin Done, Financial Times, 6 January 2004

(4) Channel 4 News report, 6 January 2004

(5) More Security, more delays, Economist, 7 January 2004

(6) ‘US forces Qantas to ban toilet queues on flights’, The Times, 7 January 2004

(7) US flight delayed for three hours, BBC News Online, 5 January 2004

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Topics Politics

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