The outbreak of war in the Middle East will undoubtedly lead to an immediate reduction in the numbers of people travelling because of fears over security.
But are their fears well-founded? The last Gulf war did not lead to an increase in attacks on airports and other transport infrastructure. Moreover, since September 11th, there has been much greater awareness of possible methods of terrorist attack and many new security measures have been introduced.
In purely statistical terms, rail, shipping or air passengers are highly unlikely to die in a terrorist attack. The old cliché that the drive to the airport is the most dangerous part of the journey remains true even at these times of heightened tension.
There is, though, still a risk. Indeed, it is impossible for airlines and other transport companies to guarantee 100 per cent safety and the fact that Britain has taken such an active role in promoting Iraq war makes us a likely target.
Conscious of the increased risk since September 11th, the travel industry has introduced many extra security measures. For example, British Airways has brought in 100 per cent screening of baggage, a move it was about to make anyway, and fitted reinforced cockpit doors on all its aircraft with CCTV cameras soon to be added.
Most security experts, however, doubt that many of the extra measures which have been implemented since September 11th make any significant difference in terms of the likelihood of an attack. According to Chris Yates, aviation security editor at Jane’s Transport, the trouble with many of the extra safeguards is that they are for show and public consumption rather than contributing any genuine reduction of risk. He cites the example of glass bottles of perfume and alcohol being allowed to be taken on board: ‘Anyone knows that these can be used as weapons that are much more effective than the nail clippers they confiscate at security.’
The glass issue is, indeed, a mystery. No airline or airport owner was able to give a satisfactory answer as to why bottles could be taken on planes. They referred the Daily Telegraph to the Department for Transport whose guidance says: ‘Airports and airlines must look at each item on its merit and consider whether they believe it could be used as a potential weapon. Also a sensible balance has to be taken between what is reasonable and what is realistic.’
Therefore it is really a matter for the aviation companies and this balance is clearly determined by commercial considerations as removing the profit from duty-free from airports would push up fares. This suggests that the onerous security on the entrance to the departure gates are redundant but BA says that reinforcing cockpit doors means that hijackers could not get in to attack the pilots.
There is a lack, too, of consistency between airports, with provincial terminals being much more relaxed about security. For example, travelling recently from Stansted to Edinburgh, my photo press card was considered not to be sufficient ID on the way up but it was accepted on the return flight.
Airlines also impose different requirements. Ryanair, famous for its graceless service, has harsher rules than Easyjet. A soldier, whose passport was being held at his base, flew up to Scotland from Stansted using his army pass as ID on Easyjet but for the return flight he changed to Ryanair who refused to accept it. This type of inconsistency is partly a result of the low educational levels of many of the staff working in security where pay is often at or near the minimum wage and no qualifications are required. Germany, where staff are required to have basic educational qualifications has a particularly good reputation for security.
Some of the new measures may well increase risk. American airline pilots are to be required to carry guns in the cockpit, something an idea to which the rest of the world’s aviation industry is adamantly opposed.
They are also resisting attempts to force airlines to make it impossible to turn off their transponders, the equipment which allows air traffic control to locate aircraft and to fit a special code which the pilots could use if they were being hijacked. In the September 11th hijacks, three of the four aircraft had their transponders turned off, making it difficult for fighter aircraft to locate them. However, European pilots recognise that turning their transponder to the hijack mode would effectively ensure the destruction of their plane by the military.
Moreover, new security measures tend to address the last attack, rather than anticipating any new ones. That is why passengers are still asked whether they packed their own bag or were given anything to take on the plane, which is a legacy of the Lockerbie disaster where it is thought the terrorists did not actually get on the aircraft themselves. Now that suicide attacks are the fashion, these questions are largely irrelevant. The fact that aircraft carry fire axes, whose location is probably known to many frequent flyers, is another potential source of danger that has not been addressed.
Airside security remains another risk area. On the anniversary of the 9/11 attack, Yates wrote an article saying that airside security was lax which was immediately denied by the Department for Transport. However, he says: ‘The next day, they arrested a bunch of illegal immigrants who had obtained security passes to be airside’. And a couple of weeks ago, a Sunday newspaper journalist got onto an empty plane with a replica sub-machine gun by hopping on the back of a catering truck.
On other forms of transport, security requirements ten to be even patchier. Eurostar which runs trains between London and both Paris and Brussels through the Channel Tunnel is now screening all baggage that goes on to its trains but Eurotunnel does not check the contents of every car entering the tunnel on its shuttle trains between Folkestone and Calais. No checks are carried out on InterCity trains or on the London Underground, mainly because they are almost impossible to institute.
However, while Transec, the arm of the Department for Transport responsible for security has not attempted to impose restrictions on baggage taken on to trains, it has ruled that bicycle lockers at stations must have gaps underneath the sides to ensure that they can be checked for bombs. As one security expert put it, ‘they single out soft targets where they can impossible rules, even if in practice this does not really make travel safer and the real risk is absolutely negligible. Meanwhile, much bigger issues, such as travellers’ bags are not addressed because they are too difficult.’
The Port of Dover follows government guidelines on the level of security – from 1 to 5 – and says that in recent days the level, which is kept secret but is thought to be 3, has not changed. At higher levels, more cars are searched but a spokesman admitted that it would be impossible to check every car going on to the ferries.
The travel industry is particularly keen to reassure people at this time but the bald statistics, which show that terrorist attacks are very rare, are cold comfort to many would-be travellers. However, if they want to be able to keep on travelling when peace is restored, they must retain faith with the industry now which is facing its darkest hour. If too many people are scared off now, bankruptcies and closures will severely reduce people’s opportunities for travel in the future.