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Saturday September 10, 2011

Impact of 9/11 attacks on air travel

The 2001 attacks on New York’s World Trade Center has had marked effects on air travel.

Everyone remembers the event, of course: On Sept 11, 2001, al-Qaeda militants hijacked four US passenger planes and plowed two of them into the World Trade Center in New York, one into the Pentagon in Virginia and the fourth into a field in Pennsylvania. Apart from the (still-ongoing) political fallout, this was a momentous event in aviation history, as it was the first suicide attack by terrorists using civilian aircraft.

Until that day, the greatest armed threat to commercial flights were hijackings or – extremely rarely – being shot down by a hostile nation’s air force. The 9/11 attacks marked the first time that hijackers boarded a commercial flight fully intending to kill themselves and everyone else on board.

Since the attack, airplane travel has been transformed. Serious questions were raised about the effectiveness of security at the time, as all 19 hijackers managed to pass several different checkpoints and board their aircraft without hindrance.

Beefed up security: Changes sweeping the aviation industry following the attacks on the World Trade Center include new airport security procedures, baggage screening, carry-on luggage limitations, electronic scans, physical pat-downs, and even name-profiling, all of which serve to make travelling more arduous.

A few months after 9/11, an Islamic fundamentalist from Britain carried shoes packed with explosives on a flight from Paris to Miami. He was subdued as he tried to detonate the bombs. In August 2006, British police arrested 24 suspects involved in a terror plot to simultaneously blow up several aircraft in mid-flight between Britain and the United States, using liquid explosives smuggled in hand luggage.

There have also been several attempts to blow up US-bound airlines, including on Christmas day 2009 when a Nigerian man was arrested for allegedly carrying plastic explosives stitched into his underwear on a flight from Amsterdam to Detroit in the US.

To counter such attempts, the changes sweeping the aviation industry have been both comprehensive and intensive. They include new airport security procedures, baggage screening, carry-on luggage limitations, electronic scans, physical pat-downs, and even name-profiling.

The 9/11 attacks has generally had two different effects on international commercial aviation. On one hand, there is a constant, inescapable tension, heightened by lengthy queues, laborious visa requirements, frustrating luggage limitations, obtrusive physical examinations, and the occasional delayed or missed flight. On the other hand, many people feel that there is a very positive feeling of alertness, security and efficiency that also improves passenger care, luggage handling and other aspects of the travel experience.

Germal Singh Khera, chairman of the International Air Transport Association-recommended Board of Airline Representatives Malaysia, feels that while security and passenger safety have improved at airlines and airports, the financial costs, bureaucratic red tape, inconveniences and innumerable complexities have made things more difficult.

“While striving to make travelling safer, many government agencies have failed to take into consideration practicality, costs and passenger convenience. Security measures are also not uniform and not consistently enforced. This results in confusion among the travelling public.

“There must be consultations with relevant stakeholders to ensure harmonised global standards,” he says, citing the local context as an example.

“Malaysia is one of the safest countries in the world, and yet aircraft and passengers flying to or from here are subject to the same rigorous screenings as they would in major trouble spots due to international expectations, fears and a small measure of ignorance by the legal eagles and bureaucrats overseas who call the shots on member airlines. All this adds up to more expensive and inconvenient travel for everyone.”

The airports have a different view.

Tan Sri Bashir Ahmad, president of Airports Council International (Asia Pacific), says that 9/11 brought about a new awareness of security that has enhanced synergy at airports.

“There is a higher level of interdepartmental communication and cooperation. Airports also integrate security innovations into physical designs and IT software development ahead of time, and this is a major step forward,” he says.

Nowhere on earth has vigilance been more exacting or the changes more wide-ranging than in the United States. Before Sept 11, 2001, airport screening was provided by private companies contracted to an individual airline or airport. This raised some issues. For example, Argenbright Security, a company that provided security at Newark and Washington Dulles airports that were used by the 9/11 terrorists, had problems before the event. In May 2000, they hired 1,300 untrained security guards, including several dozen with criminal records, for Philadelphia International Airport. The company was on probation at the time of the attack.

In November 2001, the US government set up the Transportation Security Administration to handle screening at all US airports. Since 9/11, there is now one single entity “running the show” as, theoretically, there should be super-efficient cohesiveness and coordination on security concerns.

However, bureaucratic red tape continues to tangle up the best efforts, and this is one thing that has not changed in the last decade.

From the gigantic air-hubs in America to the smallest airport in the most remote country on the map, 9/11 has resulted in greater awareness of the dangers that lurk around every corner.

These days, while travelling by air means improved security and a heightened awareness of safety concerns, these go hand in hand with endless queues, intrusive body-checks, severe luggage restrictions, rising insurance costs – and the ever-present bureaucratic red tape.

Andrew Ponnampalam is an award-winning travel and aviation writer and consultant who has interviewed the leaders of over 320 airlines and 200 airports, and has visited over 520 destinations around the world.

Related Stories:
9/11 aftermath: The Malaysian response
Confusion over security procedures after 9/11 terror attacks
9/11 travel blues: Writer shares experience
9/11 conspiracy theories

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