Terror security Q&A
© Financial Times

Stringent security measures have been imposed on airline passengers against the threat of a terrorist attack with more delays and flight cancellations expected despite the decision to downgrade the UK terrorism threat level from “critical” to “severe”.

Given the ongoing terrorist threat and tighter airport security measures, what are the implications for the future of business travel?

Michael O’Leary, the outspoken chief executive of Ryanair (above right), Neil Thompson (above far left), the operational director for red24, the global security agency, and David Hill (above inner left), senior security consultant at red24, answer your questions below.

——————————————- Question ——————————————–

What do you think of the visible police presence in the airports? I am convinced that visible officers are beneficial, but remain extremely unpleased to see the police patroling with assault rifles. I believe these weapons make no tactical sense whatsoever and would dread to imagine what destruction they could cause in an environment as congested as an airport. Handguns are enough. Do you think these weapons are justified?

William Read, London

Michael O’Leary: William, we welcome the visible police presence at airports. We have no difficulty with police patrolling with assault rifles, something you will see at many other international airports as well. The presence of these police officers with rifles at the UK airports makes a nonsense of the Government’s claim last week that they did not want to put in extra police and army personnel to provide additional security because their presence might “upset” ordinary passengers. We believe their presence would have reassured ordinary passengers as well as preventing the long queues at security and the consequent delays and cancellations which thousands of British passengers suffered that weekend.

red24: The visible presence of armed police is necessary to make the traveller more comfortable and to act as a deterrent to the terrorist and the suicide bomber. The particular weapon carried by British police is more flexible compared to a hand gun for use in varied scenarios. We understand that these assault rifles are carried on single-shot mode as opposed to fully automatic.

The police have a very difficult job to do at international airports as they members of the public must feel they are approachable, but they also have to be effective in combating any incidents that may occur. That is why police officers are used rather than the military because they are trained to perform in this dual role.

——————————————- Question ——————————————–

How can the SIZE of bag, currently so small as to be of great inconvenience to business passengers, make any difference to security? Why is that not a matter for airlines to decide?

Andrew Mayo, St Albans

Michael O’Leary: Andrew, it is a pity that the Government doesn’t apply your common sense. The size of the bag makes no difference whatsoever to security. A large brief case is no more or less secure than the normal IATA approved carry on bag. It is this illogical and totally ineffective security restriction that is handing the extremists and unwarranted and undeserved victory.

red24: As a regular business traveller myself, I couldn’t agree more that this is a huge inconvenience. On a flight from Heathrow to Cape Town this weekend my laptop and personal papers only just fitted in the tray used for measuring bags, so I wasn’t allowed to carry any overnight clothes with me for my business meeting today. Like many business travellers, I was short of time, and couldn’t really afford to be waiting at the carousel to pick up my luggage in the airport.

With regards to the security implications, the size of the bag has no obvious bearing on the security threat, particularly given that bags aren’t even being searched, so it can’t be a time saving measure. I agree that it looks to be a matter for airlines to decide, however as the authorities have stepped in, perhaps we should assume there is reasoning there, and all will become clear in time?

——————————————- Question ——————————————–

Surely Ryanair have a point? Although minimum levels of checks may be a matter for government, the best trade-off between convenience of boarding and risk of death could be set by the market. Why can’t airlines compete on this, just as car manfacturers can?

Ian Slater, Stafford

red24: In the manufacture of cars there are set safety standards that must be present, and it is then up to manufacturers whether they offer more advanced safety features as unique selling points. I think something similar could work for airlines, but only if there is a regulated minimum standard of acceptable safety that all airlines must adhere to.

If an airline wants to go above that standard, that is entirely up to them, same as the car market. For example, El Al probably has the most stringent security checks in the world, right from when passengers approach the airport terminal, to when they are actually seated on the aircraft. That is a decision that El Al have taken for the security of their passengers.

Michael O’Leary: Ian, Ryanair’s point is not that there should be a minimum level of security checks, but rather that the UK Government should return the security checks at UK airports to the same “normal” high standard as presently applies at all other international IATA airports. It is these additional restrictions which the Government introduced last week which don’t add anything to security and are just handing the extremists and lunatics a victory.

——————————————- Question ——————————————–

Why is there so much disparity between security regulations at different airports? A colleague returned from the US to the UK this morning and was allowed to carry on hand luggage that met IATA standards, but on the way back she’d have to scale down to a smaller size bag, in line with BAA guidance. Surely there’s a need for at least some similar standards between the US and UK, let alone other airports worldwide? Do you think there will ever be a global standard? If not, why not?

Hilary Hayman, London

Michael O’Leary: Hilary, it is the UK Government requirements that are out of line (and ineffective) with the IATA world standards. The only disparity now exists for passengers traveling on UK outbound flights but as you rightly point out inbound flights to the UK operate to the normal IATA standards. This highlights how stupid and ineffective the so called “additional security measures” required by the UK Government since last Monday, are. Of course if these requirements really did add to passenger security they would of course be applied to all UK inbound flights, the London underground and Eurotunnel. The sooner the Government gets back to normality at the British airports, the sooner we will defeat these terrorists and extremists.

red24: There are too many factors to be considered for a global security standard to work. You must take into consideration that countries face and respond to threats differently. The political situation, the infrastructure of the country, the corruption and crime levels, and the terrorist threat all have an impact on the security measures which are put in place at airports.

I have been to a large number of airports where the standard of security has been very poor due to the ineffective management and training of security personnel. There is no way that on a global scale, security personnel could be trained to the same level due to the factors mentioned above. In addition, the equipment used to detect prohibited articles will vary greatly from country to country.

At the present time, Governments cannot even agree on the same terminology for the use of threat levels and will give different advice on their Government websites in respect of country threat assessments. It is unlikely that a global standard for security for airports set by Governments will exist in the near future.

——————————————- Question ——————————————–

Do you think we are moving into towards a scenario where business travellers might start moving to smaller charter flights shared between companies? Instead of ‘retail’ flights? Given that in each key metropolitan there are enough regular business travellers per company.

Vikram, Dublin

red24: In the last couple of months, I’ve seen charter companies extolling the virtues of business travel, saying it’s cost effective to take business travellers from a small regional airport to their destination abroad, so this does seem to be more of a viable alternative than previously, and it’ll be interesting to see how take-up develops.

From a security perspective though, we wouldn’t recommend a whole load of company executives from the same company travelling together. If they do, and there is an accident, you could end up with a scenario where the entire board of a company disappears in one go. This would obviously have significant repercussions for the business and its share price.

On a more general note, I think that co-ordination and logistics of different companies sharing the smaller chartered flights is likely to prove difficult.

Michael O’Leary: Vikram, no. Smaller charter flights will never serve the needs of business passengers who generally require high frequencies and timetable flexibility. Small charter flights won’t provide this. What we urgently need for both business and ordinary passengers is to return UK airport security to normal, in the same way as the UK Government successfully restored the London Underground to normal two days after the 7/7 outrage.

——————————————- Question ——————————————–

For Michael O’Leary: with the new security measures threatening to undermine key elements of your business model, how can you go about reassuring investors about your company’s future prospects?

Ben Bland, London

Michael O’Leary: Ben, the new security measures don’t threaten or affect in any way Ryanair’s business model. The only thing they affect is the UK Government’s credibility. If toothpaste and women’s toiletries now threaten our safety and security then why is the Government allowing them to be carried on the London underground or on Eurotunnel? The fact remains that UK airport and airline security - prior to last Thursday - has successfully prevented any terrorist attack for over 25 years, and the new measures such as limiting carry on luggage or confiscating bottled water and make-up at airport security (only to allow passengers to buy these again in duty free and carry them on board an aircraft) will not have any effect on the security of British airports, airlines or passengers.

If the Government really felt that these measures added to security they would be asking the airlines to apply the same measures on all inbound flights to the UK as well as on the underground and the Eurotunnel.

——————————————- Question ——————————————–

Isn’t this a complete over-reaction to a weak threat, with the outcome being that the terrorists have managed to cause more mayhem and destruction than they ever would have got away with in the first place?

Michael Ellis

red24: I do not think this was a weak threat by the terrorists as only one person has been released and in excess of 20 are still in custody, which to me suggests the anti-terrorism branch and security services have good evidence against these people.

I think the mayhem is being caused by BAA not having sufficient business continuity processes to fall back on. I believe people do not mind being inconvenienced if there is a good infrastructure behind it. When I flew out of Heathrow this weekend, there were 2 x-ray machines in use, while another 2 were not being used, resulting in an hour’s wait between immigration and the search area.

It appears to me that BAA does not have sufficient resources, and this is the fundamental reason for passenger delay.

Michael O’Leary: Michael, absolutely I couldn’t agree more with you. Until the UK Government returns UK airport security to normal IATA standards, then sadly, we will have handed the extremists an undeserved victory.

——————————————- Question ——————————————–

What possible justification is there for limiting the size of carry on bags? I could live with the restrictions on liquids, etc, being prepared to buy at destination. But the limits to carry on bag sizes mean that I will now have to put my holdall in the hold. And travelling as I do from Manchester through Heathrow /Gatwick to destinations in the Middle East, eastern Europe and Africa will mean that I will now often be arriving to find my holdall gone astray, as most luggage seems to when faced with a quick transfer from a domestic to an international flight at either Heathrow or Gatwick. You have to ask if there is another agenda here, which is to make air travel more difficult and thereby cut down on passenger numbers.

Howard Shenton

Michael O’Leary: Howard, limiting the size of carry on bags to the normal IATA security dimensions makes sense as it prevents passengers trying to bring large suit cases either through security or on board. However the additional restrictions imposed by the UK government last week which further reduces this to large brief cases on out bound flights from the UK makes no difference to security whatsoever. The UK Government should immediately restore the normal IATA carry on luggage limits to outbound flights, particularly when these limits currently apply to all inbound flights to the UK. This ineffective and nonsensical hand luggage restriction on UK outbound flights only serves to hand the extremists an undeserved victory.

red24: As far as I can tell, there is no reasonable justification for reducing the size of carry on bags. I flew from Heathrow to Cape Town yesterday, and although I was pleased that I was allowed to take my laptop and phone with me on the plane, I could not understand why my carry on luggage was limited to a certain size.

The x-ray machines they used to scan my laptop bag were the same ones that are always used and hence it’s not the case that they are now using new equipment that can only deal with small bags. In addition, we’ve been told that they’re specifically worried about bottles of liquid, and things like shampoo etc don’t tend to be very big, so I can’t see how the space limitations have a bearing on this threat.

——————————————- Question ——————————————–

If we have to check in laptops (no carry on rule) without locking the luggage, how will airlines think about protecting business information on those laptops in the event of theft (or loss)?

Patrick Ng, Houston, Texas

Michael O’Leary: Patrick, there is no reason to check in lap tops or mobile phones, and the Government’s decision to allow passengers to carry these onboard from Monday last was one of the few common sense security measures taken by the Government last week.

red24:: IT and security staff need to work together to protect business data, both within the company, and when it’s being transported via laptops or other mobile devices. Above all, they need to communicate with employees to ensure they understand the risks and have been trained on any security measures they need to take in terms of using specialist tools etc. These guidelines need to encompass all travelling employees, contractors and third parties who are in possession of company confidential or sensitive information.

If the laptop is not critical for the traveller, companies should think about arranging a substitute at the destination, or asking employees not to travel with these devices. In many instances this may not be practical and businesses need to employ measures such as encryption tools, laptops that incorporate biometric scanners, regular password changes, etc. The main thing is that the company needs to be aware of what is on the laptop, so if it does go missing they will at least understand the risk they may be facing, and so address it in an appropriate way.

Businesses must make sure that those travelling are fully aware of how sensitive the data they’re carrying is and the measures that are in place to protect it. Ideally, strategic information that can impact the way the business operates will not be carried on a laptop and will be protected so that it cannot be accessed from a stolen laptop in any way. Information that is sensitive, but not as strategically important, could be carried on a laptop, though in the short-term whilst laptops are banned on planes, perhaps business travellers could use memory sticks instead? We recommend checking with specific airlines for the policy on taking memory sticks onto planes.



In depth - London terror alert

Forum - Is Ryanair right? Should air security return to previous levels?

What you can take on board

Get alerts on London when a new story is published

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2022. All rights reserved.
Reuse this content (opens in new window) CommentsJump to comments section

Comments have not been enabled for this article.

Follow the topics in this article