A New Phase of Aviation History Is Upon Us: The Paranoia Years
Mark Lawson, writing for the Guardian (Jan. 10, 2004)
The passengers sleeping on airport seats at Gatwick and Heathrow this week during delays caused by an Italian strike must have felt almost comforted by the disruption. How nostalgic to be reminded of a time when the greatest threat to reaching your destination was an air traffic controller seeking more lira.
Try to fly to America in the future and you face hours grouching in the lounge while 22 different US agencies inspect the passenger manifest, or a passenger who has failed to secure the correct biometric visa is dragged into an office and questioned on whether his sister's mother-in-law once walked past a mosque.
Shortly after celebrations of the centenary of the first powered flight, it became clear this week - as one BA flight was delayed and cancelled several times, pilot unions negotiated over air marshals, and the US imposed new visa restrictions - that we are entering a new phase of aviation history: the paranoia years. Queues for the cabin loos will no longer be allowed, in case a huddle of the full-bladdered is mistaken for fanatics synchronising their watches.
What may seem odd to future historians is that it took more than two years after the plane-bombs destroyed the twin towers for airports to be declared war-zones. The reason for the delay seems to have been that it was assumed by our spooks - and hoped by frequent flyers - that al-Qaida might move on to a different manner of psychopathy after 9/11. Next, it would be light-planes flown into power stations or boats torpedoed.
But security experts have now concluded that the organisation has a morbid fixation with passenger jets. It's easy to imagine why this might be: air-mile accounts represent western wealth and the ability to capture the world, even if only symbolically on camcorders. And America has conducted most of its recent wars by dropping bombs from aeroplanes. Mad minds therefore find pure retribution in using fuselages full of Yanks to murder others on the ground. The fear now is that 9/11 was just a rehearsal.
And so, as the British transport secretary has admitted, aviation in the next decade is likely to become a business of delays, cancellations and threatened repatriations. The obvious commercial risk to the industry is that flying will come to be seen, like driving in snow-storms, as an activity dictated by necessity. The careful balance that airlines have always maintained between fear and convenience may tip the other way.
Reluctance to submit to these procedures may be hastened by the feeling that some of the measures - especially the new hi-tech security documents - are not about protecting passengers, but are primarily intended to restrict entry to America: to adapt the Statue of Liberty - put your huddled masses in a pen over there while we biometrically scan them.
The optimistic spin on this is that we may be entering the safest period of aviation in history. Once, as a frightened child waving my dad off at Heathrow on a flight number that had crashed the day before, he explained that the best time to fly was just after they had cleared wreckage from the runway: you were protected by both the law of statistics and improved maintenance.
Some of the passengers on the obsessively cosseted BA223 flights to Washington made exactly this point to reporters. If you happened to be a nervous flyer, it was surely quite a good deal to sit among passengers who had been scrutinised by almost two dozen US spooks in a plane that was escorted through US airspace by fighter jets. Every passenger is president for a day; every airline becomes El Al.
The weakness of this theory is that it assumes such levels of paranoia would be constant and uniform. If the safest time to fly is during a period of paranoia, then it follows that the riskiest moment to pick up a boarding pass is just after the panic has died down.
Suppose you were an al-Qaida hijacker planning another in-flight suicide-homicide mission. Osama bin Laden's email from his cave picked out BA223, but the CIA intercepted what they patronisingly called your" chatter", and suddenly they were treating that take-off slot like Air Force One.
What would you do? Surely you would switch to another flight, chatting about the target through a different means of communication. The obsessive protection of a single London-Washington flight is like setting a single mousetrap in a house full of holes.
Israeli passengers accept armed guards and check-ins that take longer than the flight time because they know their nation is permanently under threat. The decision for other governments and airlines - watched by a terrified tourist industry - is whether it is now necessary for them to put the same panic in the air.
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