Aviation security: a self-serving industry

The fuss about aviation security seems to be dying down a bit, leaving us with a rather random set of rules that is still causing Michael O’Leary of Ryanair much angst. While it is clear there was a real threat this time unlike at Forest Gate or some of the other high profile police raids – though how likely the miscreants would have been able to carry out ‘murder on a grand scale’ is another matter – there are still an awful lot of questions to be asked about aviation security, and nothing that has happened detracts from my original view that most of the checks at airports are a completely waste of time carried out for the benefit of passenger perception rather than actual risk reduction.

Security seems always geared towards the last major incident, rather than being proactive and imaginative. We are still being asked by check in staff whether we packed our own bags, a pretty stupid question when suicide bombers are now the preferred mode of attack. Do they really expect us to say: ‘oh, no this mate of a mate of mine, Mohammed, packed them for me yesterday’?

This is true, incidentally, of safety procedures. The daft requirement of forcing airlines to carry lifejackets, complete with whistles and which can be ‘topped up by blowing into the tube’ is a daft leftover of when planes travelled at a speed where there was a chance of surviving a plunge into the sea, something that is virtually impossible in today’s jets.

The dangers of liquids were well known and there had been an attack using them as far back as 1994 when a little bomb assembled from a small container killed a Japanese businessman who was unlucky enough to be sitting in the seat previously occupied by the bomber. Yet, for 12 years we have been allowed to carry on whatever liquids we wanted, ranging from nail varnish remover to Coke.

Moreover, I have never understood the logic of taking away nail clippers, even those compact ones which have no real useable blade for any other purpose, while allowing us to buy bottles in duty free which can easily be broken and used as a very effective weapon, as anyone who frequents the rougher type of pub in the East End will know.

More seriously, the August panic played into the terrorists’ hands, delivering, as O’Leary rightly said, a victory to them without a single bomb being let off. Sure, security did need to be stepped up but there had to be a better risk assessment process. Giving the same treatment to very obvious holidaymakers with babies and tiny tots or Chinese grandmothers as to, say, young men of Mediterranean appearance is just plain daft. Moreover, again as O’Leary points out, the risks on a Ryanair flight to Pescara are lower than those on a BA flight to New York. There is just something so dumb and prosaic about the ‘heightened’ security measures which contributed greatly to the chaos. Of course, you can see the process that went on in the minds of the politicians and the aviation businesses: they did not want to risk anything but in doing so they put the whole business at risk by making flying such a hassle that people would be deterred.

In fact, I don’t think that is the case. Aviation has been growing steadily at 4-5 per cent annually since World War Two and while there were blips during the first Gulf War and after 9/11, the industry quickly recovered. We are, it seems, addicted to stepping into those flying cigar tubes, a state of mind stimulated by the recent excellent safety record of the world’s major airlines – and indeed of low cost companies like Easyjet and Ryanair, neither of which has yet had a fatal crash.

We will, therefore, continue to fly despite the added security burden which, in turn, will continue to be poorly focussed and largely a waste of time and money. But then what can you expect from an industry which has not managed to rid themselves of redundant lifejackets?

Shares