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Safety, Terrorism and Airplane Security

Last weekend’s batch of cancelled flights between Europe and the United States was the second in barely a month. British Airways and Air France grounded five departures from Heathrow and Charles de Gaulle airports, while a Continental Airlines run from Glasgow to Newark also was axed. Whether you’re an unemployed pilot hungry to get his job back, or one of thousands of stranded passengers, nothing is more infuriating than these on again, off again cautions.

The largest US airlines, already brutalized by the fallout of war and terror, are yet to rediscover anything close to profitability. Following September 11th, high-yield international traffic saw a dropoff approaching 40 percent in some markets. Just as the trend was at last creeping forward, along comes Code Orange and the latest scare from Europe. As if airport screening procedures weren’t already driving off as many fliers as possible, repeated — and repeatedly vague — bouts of ominous, last-second terror alerts are guaranteed to keep the ink running red and customers running away. Americans, already among the planet’s most squeamish travelers, are more likely than ever to forego international holidays and business trips. While the bottom lines at BA and Air France are holding their own, the poison is shared by both sides of the Atlantic. Continental and Delta — the largest players between the States and Europe — stand to lose the most.

Cynics are prone to see the warnings as either tactical ass-covering or, for those of you with more mobilized appetites for conspiracy, blatant fear mongering with designs toward keeping the populace ripe for manipulation. It’d be patently foolish of me to accuse authorities — be they our own Homeland Security team or European equivalents, of going the full blatant Orwell route — but general ineptitude, maybe, is a more tempting call.

It’s hard to gage, of course, since nobody is talking. The how, why, and who of the cancellations are aptly bunkered — as perhaps they should be — behind a web of secret intelligence. “Credible threat information,” was once source’s summary of what led to the groundings. “For security reasons,” explained an Air France spokesperson. “In the light of information received” was all one British Department for Transport official could muster. We’re not owed a complete explanation, frankly, so long as ends bear out the means: arrests, for example, or seizures of weapons. But a rash of frightening-sounding near misses followed by scattershot reports of unnamed individuals vanishing into the foggy arrondissements of Paris, is not a confidence builder.

Back over Christmas, after a half dozen Air France flights were nixed, authorities said an al-Qaeda operative, possibly in possession of a concealable bomb, had no-showed for one of them. A hunt for the man touched off raids in the city of Lyon and a town outside Paris. The man, holder of a French passport and graduate of an al-Qaeda boot camp, remains at large. At the same time, however, different reports spoke of numerous terrorists planning a September 11th style takeover. Stories that a jet would be commandeered for a divebombing mission into Las Vegas seem to have been based on little more than Vegas happening to lie along the flight path between Paris and Los Angeles. The FBI later admitted that a list of suspected terrorists transmitted to French police contained the names of innocent passengers. Mistaken identities caused at least three of the six cancellations.

For an airline, the financial repercussions of pulling the plug on a long-haul departure are a lot more than chump change. Nine-hundred passengers on two continents may need to be accommodated, rerouted, and, if they’re lucky, apologized to.

Better to err on the safe side? In December 1988, the US embassy in Helsinki, Finland, was tipped off that a Pan American flight from Frankfurt to New York would be bombed in the coming weeks. Deciding not to publicize the threat, officials warned Pan Am and sent notice to embassies around Europe, ostensibly so their employees could make alternate travel arrangements. No flights were canceled. On December 21, Pan Am flight 103, which had originated in Frankfurt and was headed to JFK, blew up over Scotland. Until you-know-what this represented the worst-ever terrorist attack against American civilians. And who remembers Ramzi Yousef, co-mastermind of the 1993 World Trade Center prelude and master mixer of hard-to-detect liquid explosives? Yousef’s plan, code-named “Project Bojinka,” was to blow up more than a dozen US airliners simultaneously over the Pacific. We caught him in 1994 after he’d already killed a passenger during a test run aboard a Philippine Airlines 747.

I’m perplexed by what remains a stubborn allegiance to the September 11th boilerplate — the notion that an attack will follow the kamikazee skyjack script. To whit, the alleged concealable bomb and the lesson of Lockerbie, but nothing seems able to temper our preoccupation with knives, sharp objects, and whether or not certain passengers are licensed pilots.

Which terrorists, I’d like to know, would be stupid enough to board a 747 at a large European terminal and attempt an airborne siege? My hunch remains that saboteurs will look elsewhere. Perhaps they are looking elsewhere, throwing up a smokescreens in London or Paris while the real plan will be hatched in Kingston, San Salvador, or Caracas. And what would that real plan be? More knives, mace, and boxcutters? I doubt it.

Last summer a gaggle of Bangladeshi men were apprehended in Bolivia — Bolivia — after scheming to seize aircraft and attack US targets elsewhere in South America. Where better for a perpetrator to find some operational camouflage than these regions of lowered guard and darker skin?

And here’s some food for thought. Please note the following list of airlines:

Turkish Airlines
Pakistan International
Biman Bangladesh
Royal Air Maroc
Royal Jordanian
Saudi Arabian Airlines
Kuwait Airways
Uzbekistan Airways
Malaysia Airlines
Ghana Airways
Ethiopian Airlines

What these carriers all have in common in addition to unprecedented numbers of passengers named Muhammad and Hussein, is that all fly regularly — in some cases daily — to New York or Washington. Air France and British Airways nothing. Why these flights are not accidentally (or otherwise) setting off those hair trigger alarms is a testament either to the accuracy of our intelligence, or its total irrelevance.

It strikes me now that I’ve probably managed to scare the pants off everybody reading this — precisely opposite to what I had in mind. To what extent recent events underscore the resourcefulness of terrorism versus the futility of trying to fight it remains to be seen, but until then — and here we go again with statistical platitudes — the sheer volume of aircraft safely arriving in this country probably should encourage rather than frighten us, no matter their countries of registration or citizenship of their passengers. Hundreds of flights crisscross the Atlantic and Pacific every single day.

I’ll give the government — even those overly excitable folk over at Homeland Security — benefit of the doubt on this one.

This article is part of a collection that originally appeared on Patrick Smith, 38, is an erstwhile airline pilot, retired punk rocker and air travel columnist. His book, Ask the Pilot (Riverhead) was voted “Best Travel Book of 2004” by Patrick has traveled to more than 55 countries and always asks for a window seat. He lives near Boston.