In his thriller novel Flight Into Danger, Arthur Hailey tells the story of how all the people aboard a flight including the pilot and co-pilot, except a passenger who happened to be a former air force pilot, an air hostess and a passenger who happened to be a general physician, take ill following food poisoning after eating contaminated fish served midair. This imaginary situation raises a scary question against the backdrop of L’affaire peegate — are fliers after all safe despite the elaborate security drill at the airport? The answer, unfortunately and depressingly, is in the negative.
First, the situation envisaged by Hailey may be a product of his fertile imagination but by no means outlandish. One hopes airlines are taking all the precautions in this regard. Food and beverages are loaded direct into the aircraft by the airlines and their catering contractors. Good packing does not necessarily mean food is fresh and not stale.
Second, free flow of liquor to the first class and business class passengers is the kind of pampering we can do without. Some passengers mistake a luxury-class flight for a tavern. Ditto for the lounge where liquor flows even more freely thanks to self-servicing. Aviation authorities and airlines of the world should read the riot act — limit on boozing, plus breath testing at the security as well as at the boarding gate. A drunken brawl is bad enough; inside an aircraft cabin it can become downright dangerous.
Third, the danger of cutlery being weaponised. No sharp objects are allowed to be carried into the cabin but surprisingly the cabin crew as well as the lounge themselves supply sharp-edged cutlery like fork and knife. All classes of passengers may have to do with plastic forks and knives in the larger interest of the safety of everyone in the aircraft. Similarly, plastic or paper cups must replace glasses completely inside the aircraft, regardless of class. These precautions are necessary if violent attacks are to be pre-empted. A person with a deadly plan is not going to let the cost of a first-class fare stop him.
Fourth, the fancy shops between the security check area and the boarding gates must be allowed to operate only subject to thorough discipline and regulations. One hopes that is already in vogue. The entire security drill could come to naught should there be laxity in the last mile, more so because the airline staff do not carry out a fresh inspection of cabin baggage at the boarding gate. Therefore, it must be ensured that no dangerous items or substances are sold in these fancy shops that can be weaponised midair. Restrooms in this vulnerable section also need to be monitored for cleaning liquids and other items that could be weaponised. A thorough security check alone is not enough. The crew must be able to make a random check of cabin baggage if required, as a measure of abundant precaution. Such a healthy practice would send the right signal — don’t try to arm yourself in the last mile between security check and the boarding gate.
Fifth, the unobtrusive presence of marshals inside the aircraft cabin. After the 9/11 twin-tower attack, there were reports of British Airways and American Airlines flying with marshals trained in unarmed combat masquerading as passengers. Airlines should emulate this, or if it proves too expensive, they should train cabin crew in unarmed combat if it is not already being done.
It is time all airlines pool their experiences and expertise to make air travel safer and devoid of hiccups.
S Murlidharan is a freelance columnist for various publications and writes on economics, business, legal, and taxation issues
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