Why airport security needs to be overhauled

Simon Calder
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Pan Am departure lounge, Frankfurt airport, 2 January 1989: two Middle Eastern men who had checked in for the same flight to Berlin as me were denied boarding.

Thirteen days earlier, Pan Am flight 103 from Heathrow to New York JFK had been blown out of the sky over Lockerbie, killing 270 people. It became chillingly clear that profiling based on ethnicity was already under way.

Since then I have talked to many people who happen not to be white, particularly men, about airport security. And I get the strong sense that they undergo a more gruelling experience than I do.

So the lead story in Saturday’s Times had a disturbing headline: “Ryanair boss Michael O’Leary wants extra checks on Muslim men.”

It was with some relief, when I read the article, that I realised the accuracy of the headline would be improved if the verb was replaced by “does not want”.

I have known Mr O’Leary for 20 years. During those decades plenty of people have criticised him. But the idea that he is remotely racist or Islamophobic is preposterous. Indeed, he has arguably done more to foster international understanding than anyone else in Europe, having built the budget airline that flies more people to more places than any other.

In a wide-ranging interview, the Ryanair boss laid into the present box-ticking system for airport security – and called for a lighter touch for many passengers.

“If you are travelling with a family of kids, on you go; the chances you are going to blow them all up is f***ing zero.

“Who are the bombers? They are going to be single males travelling on their own.

“You can’t say stuff, because it’s racism, but it will generally be males of a Muslim persuasion. Thirty years ago, it was the Irish. If that is where the threat is coming from, deal with the threat.”

The Labour MP, Khalid Mahmood, said Michael O’Leary was being “totally illiterate” if he thought that airport security staff should or could target adherents to a global religion.

“Muslims are across the globe,” he told me. “There are African, Asian and European Muslims.”

And history shows that terrorists acts have been committed by a vast spectrum of evil individuals.

What Mr O’Leary was clumsily yet wisely proposing was: an overhaul of aviation security. Every frequent traveller knows exactly how to get through an airport checkpoint almost anywhere in the world. No long blades, liquids only in containers of 100ml or less, laptop out…

The worst-ever act of aviation terrorism was perpetrated by men who complied with the rules as they were applied on 11 September 2001: they took through blades that allowed them to hijack planes and crash them to catastrophic effect. That, I contend, shows that box-ticking aviation security is far from foolproof.

Assuming that everyone who wants to board a flight is an international terrorist, until a search of their possessions proves otherwise, is an extremely wasteful system.

Vast amounts of resources are squandered checking people like you who present no threat. Better to invest that effort in looking at the person, not their possessions. Israel, whose national airline is regarded as a legitimate target by some, has mastered aviation security, as I discovered on a visit to the brand-new Ramon airport, near the Red Sea resort of Eilat.

Everyone is interviewed by security staff before they even get to check in. While most of the holidaymakers on my flight to Sofia were given a light touch, shrewdly I was singled out for a half-hour grilling as my travelling behaviour – which included a visit to Jordan and Saudi Arabia in the very recent past – was regarded as worthy of further investigation.

“Profiling”, when it is calibrated on racial or religious grounds, is immoral and ineffective. But when the focus is on behaviour, and analysing the out-of-the-ordinary, it is a very valuable layer of defence. As I concluded after my lengthy Israeli encounter: instinct can be smarter than technology.

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Ryanair boss calls for extra checks on Muslim men at airports