Friday, January 08, 2010

Happy Landings

from Jacqueline

I was listening to a segment on NPR last week, a discussion and call-in on the use of body scanners at airport, along with the increased security we can now expect following the recent attempt to detonate an explosive device on a Northwest Airlines aircraft landing in Detroit. Now, no one likes a line at the airport, and with the news that body scanners were to be used as part of the security process for transatlantic flights, I thought “Uh-oh ...” and put in a call to the orthopedic surgeon who inserted a couple of steel rods into my arm with various screws and do-dads from the medical hardware store. It was a “Can I have a copy of my x-rays?” call, just so I have them to hand when I travel. It might help prove that I had the metal inserted before 9-11. It’s just what you have to do to smooth the passage through the mire of security.

Anyway, it rather amazed me just how many people called NPR to complain about the scanners, the security, profiling and what have you; mainly in connection with civil liberties. I can see the point, however, I am of the mindset that death is a pretty major slight against my civil liberty, so – much as I hate queuing – I will go into that Zen space and as far as the whole security thing is concerned, I’ll “just do it.”

During the show, and between two calls of complaint, an Indian woman called in. She had clearly lived in the USA for some years, and said that she and her husband both traveled extensively on business. She explained that they are pulled out for extra security examination 95% of the time when traveling, but she added, “That’s OK with us; we know our features are similar to those of the kind of people who are blowing up ‘planes, so we understand, and we’re happy to put up with it – we want to stay alive too.” That’s my approach, and you might be surprised how many times I am pulled out, though it has more to do with the fact that I’m British, I think, and that, especially during a book tour the flights are all one-way rather than round-trip. Frankly, enhanced security is a mark of the times we live in and it’s the name of the game.

The one aspect of all this that still surprises me – and I mean it REALLY surprises me – is the fact that people in the USA, for the most part, still don’t seem to be taking responsibility for their own security – inasmuch as one can. A terrorist can cause terrible damage without going near the security line, and without even purchasing a ticket. Let me give you an example. I was at an airport, and because I had some time to kill before going through security, I went into a cafe that had lots of seating, some interesting pastries on sale, and you could get a non-dairy latte. In this part of the airport, anyone could walk in and have a coffee, or go shopping. While wrangling my purchases, I noticed two carry-on bags left by the wall with no person close by to ask, “Are these yours?” Now, remember – and you’ve heard me say this before, so sorry for the repetition – I worked in London for years while the IRA were bombing right, left and center, and you didn’t ignore that sort of thing. No idiot leaves a case around, and no idiot ignores it when they see it. So, in this instance, I reported the abandoned cases to the woman on the checkout and said, “I think you should call security.” She looked at me as if I had just grown three heads, and said, “Oh, come ON!” People behind me rolled their eyes, and I realized that I was the only one who saw the potential danger in this abandonment of personal effects. So I put my intended purchases down and walked out, though not before I said, “I may look stupid to you, but if those cases hold anything more dangerous than dirty laundry, then this decision could save my life.” I know, a bit sarcastic, but I was shocked.

I remember talking to my friend, Tim, about what happened – he was a fairly senior officer in the British army at the time, and had just returned home after being part of Central Command in Qatar at the outset of the Iraq war – and he pointed out that it was the fact that, in Britain, we were under threat all the time during the 70’s & 80’s, and that barely a week went by without a bomb going off somewhere that kept us on our toes regarding our surroundings. The eyes in the back of your head were always open. But for us here in the USA, even though we’ve been subject to a terrible terrorist attack, during the spaces in between events we have time to become complacent. We know about the failings of our security organizations, but it might also serve us to know that each day numerous serious terrorist threats are thwarted, and thousands are saved from potential disaster. And though, to be honest, we can’t look up everyone’s trouser legs as they line up for the flight, we can look around us, and we can be vigilant, wherever we are. And we can be unafraid of the embarrassment that comes when we tell a security guard about a kid’s backpack left by the water fountain, especially when the kid comes running to claim the offending backpack just the sniffer dogs are about to get into the candy. That’s a happy ending.

Some years ago, a man boarding a flight was about to step across that rubber bit that marks the end of the ramp and the threshold of the ‘plane, when he happened to glance at the fuselage and saw a piece of metal sticking out. Instead of thinking to himself, “Oh, it’s been checked, they must know what they’re doing. That thing’s probably meant to be like that,” he alerted the flight attendant, who spoke to the engineer, who took a gander at the fuselage and grounded the ‘plane. I can’t remember the technicalities of the problem, but that man saved the lives of about 150 people, because it was a pretty serious bit of metal, and the fact that it was hanging off would have led to the ‘plane crashing on take-off.

With all that said, we know these are very serious times. We don’t need a government to tell us about orange security levels or whatever the latest jargon is, to signal that we need to be vigilant. Be observant, be patient, and let’s do our best to deal with whatever security checks are brought in. They may be knee-jerk reactions, and some of these efforts, ideas and new-fangled machines might not work, or be intrusive, but it’s a different world and we all have to learn to do things differently, and take them in our stride. It doesn’t mean you have to walk around in a heightened state of “What’s going to happen next?” Appropriate vigilance becomes transparent to you after a while, just something you do while going about your business. Which is better than not thinking at all.

Many years ago, after I had completed the training prior to my first flight as an airline stewardess (none of this “flight attendant” lark in those days), we – the girls on my course – all received a note from the airline’s Chief Safety Officer. He was a real stickler for the rules, a demon with carte blanche to turn up any time at any airport in any country to test all flight crew on their knowledge of the ‘plane and emergency procedures. One mistake, and you were off, grounded. For him there was nothing, absolutely nothing more important than the safety of the aircraft and everyone on board. He signed off that note with the message, “To every single one of you - always, always, Happy Landings.”

I can’t say better than that.


  1. Great post, Our J. I am quite sure that once the hooplah has died down over the underwear bomber, we will go back to our old complacent ways because when passengers complain and object, money is lost. And often it seems that the loss of money is more important than the loss of life. It's called Risk Management.

  2. Complacency is the word. It's only a matter of time, isn't it, before we suffer another unspeakeable tragedy?

  3. from Jacqueline

    Yes, complacency, at all levels, is at the heart of so much suffering. We have to take care of ourselves the best we can from the ground up - quite literally. Risk management - what a notion that is.

  4. In the early 70s, as a teen, my flight out of Heathrow was delayed for eight hours because of a bomb threat. It was hard getting on that plane when it was over, but we knew it had had a thorough going over, and we had made some great friend at the airport waiting, one of whom I later dated.
    Since 9/11 I have found three abandoned packages at airports. I always send someone for security and wait nearby to keep others from getting close. Have never heard about them on the news, so apparently, just lost property.
    I'm for bomb sniffing dogs. I'd love to see them all over the airports. Man's best friend won't let you down.


  5. I've only read about the IRA bombings in London and can only imagine how it changed the way people saw things.

    Maybe it was the blitz, or those bombings, but Brits seem to take these dangers with considerably more sang-froid than I suspect we Americans would, driven as we are by the 24-hour cable news panic.

  6. great post, jackie. i don't like flying at all but i always felt safer when everybody was checked thoroughly.

    we are probably more sensitive to bombs and terror in europe because we have lived with it for many, many decades. let's hope america wakes up in time ........

    lovely picture of you, jackie. are there more where that came from?


  7. from Jacqueline

    Carson, I remember being on a flight to the US and because Ian Paisley was on board - quite a notorious person during "the Troubles" - half the passengers walked off because they said it was too much of a risk. I can put up with delays if I know someone, somewhere is doing a good job of checking the 'plane.

    David, it really did change things, and though people were vigilant, they took it all in their stride. As Sybille says, we've seen a lot of terrorism in Europe, over many centuries, so we tend to just get on with things while looking over our shoulders.

    And Sybille - those "stews" in the photo I used were from well before my time, from the 1950's I think. I lost many of the photos from my flying days, which is probably just as well!!

  8. I'm not opposed to security. Rather I am worried about disabled people being expected to stand in lines for hours or balance while taking off their shoes. It has grieved me to see my parents stop visiting their siblings due to the physical demands. I wish there could be some way to not humble or humiliate them at the airports.

  9. from jacqueline

    Martha, you are so right about that. I was once at an airport where the security staff were so kind to an elderly lady that it made your heart ache - wishing it were so at every security line. Her son took her as far as he could, and a member of staff saw immediately how concerned he was, so he walked up and said, "I'll look after her." And he did just that - right down to taking off her shoes and putting them back on again, then making sure she was accompanied to the gate. When my parents visit my brother and I here in the USA, I watch them go towards security for their return flight, and I'm saying to myself, "Please be nice to them, please be nice to them ..." This is where I think patience comes in - so that we can all be respectful of each other, and help those who need help in these situations.

  10. Good for you. What an intelligent thoughtful and truthful piece. What seems to be missing in the whole debate is an understanding of the fact that there is no "right to fly." I too heard the NPR piece and the intelligent comment from the woman from India, my reaction is that if your beliefs, religion or whatever are in conflict with a full body scan then don't have one. Walk, drive, bicycle, swim or row to your destination, but you're not getting on the plane...period. Flying is not a right. And as it was so eloquently stated "I am of the mindset that death is a pretty major slight against my civil liberty..."

  11. Because of the new technology were having right now. I guess every airport around the globe should implement a high security level in accepting or checking passengers. I use to visit to download free online movies, and I have watched the 9/11 terrorist attack news and movie that lost a lot of lives. And I pray that this tragic story won’t happen again.

  12. Michael & William, thank you for your comments. I think you've hit the nail on the head, Michael - if you want to fly, then accept the full gamut of security precautions at the time. There are other transportation options with less hassle.

    William, it would do well for us all to remember the suffering inherent in a terrorist attack, not least the "terror" inflicted upon us as we try to get on with life following such an attack.