After 10/8: happy campers at Heathrow?

The delayed passengers put up in makeshift tents following last week’s terror alert are calm, but confused.

Beau Hopkins

Topics Politics

The passengers emerging from the Underground to the terminals were silent, but their faces told the story. They should have been embarking on hard-earned holidays chatting excitedly about rental cars, suncream, and sangria. But this was Heathrow airport, still trying to get back to something like normality in the aftermath of last Thursday’s suspected terror plot.

Even the children were quiet. Only the escalator’s metallic churn could be heard as it dragged them slowly towards the scene of the weekend’s chaos. The news had been dominated by images of an airport besieged by alleged terrorists and flooded with thousands of frightened, frustrated travellers who were crammed like refugees into tents and fed an unreliable drip-drop of information about the status of their flights. The smouldering dread was fanned by reports of the noisy row between the airport owners BAA, the Department for Transport, and the airline companies over who was to blame for the mess.

While the government’s Joint Terrorism Analysis Centre has lowered its assessment of the risk of a terrorist attack, from a heart-pumping ‘critical’ to a less-than-reassuring ‘severe’, the seven or eight heavily-armed policemen at the top of the escalator were a beefy, kevlar-vested reminder that things have not, as the BAA website emphatically states, returned to normal.

Yet a brief glance around the departure lounge of Terminal Four would suggest that normality, or something approaching it, had returned. It was crowded and busy. The seats were all taken and sleepy teenagers sat on their bags – but it was nothing like the charnel house of the news reports. One of many security guards specially subcontracted by BAA to help in the emergency explained the lack of chaos: only a certain number of passengers were allowed in at any time. Where were the others? He pointed behind him.

The tents. These loomed ominously through the windows of the hall. Police vans and more firearms officers peppered the surrounding area. What seemed like hundreds of yellow-vested BAA workers wandered in and around them, holding megaphones, speaking into radios and mobiles, and waving documents with precious flight updates. But on closer inspection, the mood was relatively calm.

The large white tents were more like grand marquees than festering camps. The passengers sitting on the pavement outside the tents had given a deceptive impression of overcrowding, but there seemed to be plenty of seats and space available inside, and many people quietly read magazines or their free copies of the London Evening Standard. Families gathered round and played card games. Children sent text messages. Friends chatted. One businesswoman checked her emails, pleasantly surprised to find a power point for her laptop. Cleaners weaved in and out of the small groups picking up litter.

Did the calmness mask frustration with the new security measures? ‘If it was just the US flights that were targeted, then why have the European flights been cancelled as well?’ asked one passenger from Lincolnshire, who had had to spend the first night of his week-long holiday in a London hotel after his flight to Geneva was cancelled.

However, most people interviewed said they were quite happy to put up with the inconvenience if it meant that they arrived safely at their destinations. They generally found the whole process, together with the heavy police presence, reassuring. ‘I feel much safer than normal’, said one lady from Somerset. Business traveller Clare Ireland, an environmental consultant from Bristol, agreed. ‘Airport security has always been a bit of a joke. They just can’t check everything, and I’ve seen people get away with murder: taking scissors and razors on board because they had forgotten that they were in their washbags. I’m really glad that they’re finally taking it seriously, and I’m happy the measures are still in place.’

Others were less positive. An elderly couple from New Zealand said that the sight of so many machine guns and bullet-proof vans had made them nervous and frightened. Several passengers also felt that while it was necessary to reassure people, the security measures were too severe.

People’s need for reassurance is understandable, particularly following UK home secretary John Reid’s recent revelations about the number of terror plots thwarted over the past year. However, less understandable is the inconsistency of Home Office declarations and its general response to the threat. Are the measures for protection or reassurance? If they are for protection, why weren’t they in place before, considering the previous thwarted plots? And why are we only being told of those old plots now, and not when they were foiled, as with the present case?

Perhaps most importantly: if this is what it takes to reassure people, what will happen when the huge police presence is inevitably directed elsewhere?

All travellers agreed that the ability to take a small item of luggage on board, even without liquids or cosmetics, had made a huge difference. Their inconvenience was also significantly mitigated by the generally decent conditions and efficient organisation of the tents. Some passengers had arrived up to eight hours early as a precaution, but waiting wasn’t a problem, explained a group of retirees from Birmingham, as they were being well looked after. In each tent there was a table loaded with chicken sandwiches, muesli bars, peanuts, water, cookies, hot drinks and baby food, all available for free. The announcement of sandwiches with different fillings was met with good-humoured cheers. Information on security measures and flight status, such a vexatious problem in previous days, was more forthcoming. There seemed to be a surplus of flight officials, who met passengers as they arrived and told them where to go and when.

However, while the organisation, control and friendliness of the staff was welcomed by passengers, it should be remembered that it had been a full five days since the police raids that triggered the crisis. There is also less traffic on a Tuesday than on the weekend and Mondays. Therefore, it shouldn’t be too surprising that the airport was not a ‘madhouse’, as one subcontracted security guard described it over the past couple of days.

Nor should the calm disguise earlier failings. In the words of a lecturer at the Economic Business School on his way to the US, ‘BAA’s complete lack of an adequate contingency plan was inexcusable. They can hardly claim that attempts by terrorists to blow up planes are unprecedented.’ Even now, things were not running entirely smoothly. Two friends going home to Dubai complained that they had been unaware that they were not allowed to enter the departures lounge until three hours before take-off. And despite BAA handing out leaflets at the airport, some were still unsure about the size of the bags they could carry on board, and which items they could and couldn’t take.

There was also some uncertainty about who exactly is in control of imposing the security measures: the Department for Transport (DfT) and the Home Office, or BAA? Opinions differed. Some insisted that it was the government’s prerogative to set the security standard and for the BAA to implement it. A few others seemed sure that it was BAA’s responsibility, with the DfT advising them. Most were unaware of the recent discrepancies between the government’s advice on hand luggage and that of BAA. Some saw the reports of inconsistency as a symptom of broader ills, from media manipulation to political correctness to government bureaucracy.

Yet such frustrations were largely kept in check. Calmness reigned. There was, however, one telling example of the deeper and more chilling impact of the terror scare and the response by the authorities: the growing sense of alienation among Britain’s Muslim population. A film crew had been picking their way through the tents, eventually stumbling upon an Asian family in traditional Muslim attire. The presenter approached them gingerly and condescendingly asked for their opinion on the current situation.

In one moment, the eyes of all those nearby were turned in their direction, as if regarding an exotic museum exhibit. Conversations dulled as ears waited eagerly for the response. The father shifted awkwardly behind his trolley, clearly uncomfortable with his sudden, unwanted celebrity. He stared angrily at the presenter.

‘No comment’, came the icy reply.

Beau Hopkins is working as an intern at spiked.

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