Goodbye, Jumbo

“Of course we’re all afraid of being blown up in a terrorist attack on a plane,” one of the Today programme announcers said on Radio 4 while interviewing someone this morning.

But hang on. Why should the successful prevention of a terrorist attack make us more afraid of terrorist attacks? Surely such successes should make us less afraid. People in Britain have known about terrorist threats for years. Yesterday’s events, if we take them at face value, are evidence that our police can prevent at least some of those attacks. Given the high-profile cock-ups of recent times, that should be cause for celebration, not fear.

Of course, this may yet turn out to be another cock-up, which would have more depressing implications. But either way—an actual plot successfully foiled, or all this fuss for nothing—it’s hard to see much basis for further restrictions of our liberties. If this was a real threat and was prevented without such restrictions, then clearly we don’t need them. If this wasn’t a real threat, then clearly we don’t need them.

If we’re going to dismantle liberal democracy and air travel as we know it in the name of security, surely we need a better basis than fear of something that didn’t happen.


Obviously, the liberties most in need of defending at times like this are the legalistic ones: the right to a fair trial, for one. But something as simple as banning carry-on luggage could completely reshape ordinary liberties we’ve all enjoyed.

Any seasoned traveller knows not to put anything into a checked-in bag that you couldn’t bear to lose; you carry it with you. Checked-in luggage can go missing, and even when it doesn’t it gets thrown around by baggage handlers like a sack of potatoes. Even if your laptop is fully backed up, you’ll need at least your essential files on your person in case it gets lost or damaged. You’ll want to keep with you all those undeveloped films or processed negatives or SD cards or backed-up holiday photos on your iPod (which is going into the hold, so forget that). If you’ve been writing a diary (or a novel, or a thesis) there’s no way you’ll want to risk losing it. And who knows what valuable documents business travellers will be carrying.

Sure, many passengers will adapt, now that they know the score—in the short term. But for UK domestic carriers, this is a nightmare. If passengers have items they don’t want to entrust to the hold, their inclination will now be to travel by train. For the short-haul tourist carriers, this is where we find out whether a few days away is worth that much hassle, and how many untaken trips that translates into. Even a drop in passenger numbers of ten or twenty percent could send some airlines to the wall. How easy is EasyJet now?

And for long-haul passengers with no alternatives, this is a major concern. Given the number of times my bags have gone missing between here and Australia (twice so far), I’ll feel far less secure if I have to put my valuables in the hold. I suppose if everything’s digital you could mail DVD-Rs to yourself as a backup, but that assumes there’s always a way to do that at the end of a trip.

The duty-free industry, the insurance industry: the effects will spread far beyond the airlines themselves. Never mind the terrorists: how long can the British government enforce a “no hand luggage” rule before the air industry begs for mercy? How long before the industry is a shadow of what it once was, and our travel patterns and options are completely altered?

I just can’t believe it can last. Either we’ll end up with Israeli levels of pre-flight screening, or airlines will have to start locking the overhead lockers before take-off so nobody can retrieve a bomb kit mid-flight. Or we’ll stop freaking out whenever the police prevent a potential crime and accept that with freedom comes risk.

Given the way the wind’s blowing, my money’s on pre-flight interviews, bag searches for everybody, and CCTV in aeroplane loos.

11 August 2006 · Events

More opinions than you can count:

And who’d be a musician?

A point that seems to have been forgotten by those who figure that putting laptops and iPods in the hold isn’t so bad: holds aren’t heated, and batteries don’t like being frozen. Is it worth coming out at the other end of a ten-hour flight with a laptop that holds a charge for twenty minutes?

Added by Rory on 12 August 2006.

Not to mention theivery and skullduggery that goes on behind the scenes (a la Corby Shapelle w. drugs in Bali). ANd half of my handluggage handbags (esp. for short haul flights) aren't (at all!) secure, so packing them into my large bag is going to be a pain.

Am arriving in Stansted next week and already not impressed. And what about the rules for sanitary products (fine if not boxed). Aren't there religions that say that women who are menstruating can't be near a kitchen - what happens to those sat near a galley with a tampon clearly visible in their plastic bag. Grrr Britain - I didn't think you'd react like this. I'm so disappointed in the nation.

Added by Naomi on 15 August 2006.

I hope things have settled down by the time you have to fly out again, Naomi. The new “relaxed” restrictions will still be awkward in many cases, e.g. for those musicians:

Added by Rory on 16 August 2006.

I don't know about anyone else, but I am currently buying stock in passenger ship companies.

Added by The Black Swan on 21 August 2006.

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