Simon Calder: Air travel is a force for good, not evil

The Man Who Pays His Way
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The Independent Travel

To the bereaved family, the grieving friend and the mourning community, no words here can soften the raw misery of the past days and the coming years.

To the bereaved family, the grieving friend and the mourning community, no words here can soften the raw misery of the past days and the coming years. The civil aircraft, a device that has given the world so much freedom, has been turned into an instrument of mass murder in a bid to destroy freedom.

For those who have not completely lost an appetite for travel after Tuesday's attack, the world will never be the same again. Your starting point will be to decide the degree of risk you are prepared to countenance in air travel, and the amount of faith you have in the aviation industry to minimise the dangers. But never lose sight of the formidably good safety record flying has, even after Tuesday. Many more people die on America's roads every year than perished in the attacks on New York and Washington.

One consequence of the added fear about air travel will be that people will switch to the roads, and some of them will die in accidents. In Britain, anyone who decides to drive, rather than fly, between London and Edinburgh will be exposed to greater danger. My half-hour bicycle ride to work and back through London traffic remains far riskier than flying around the world, and I have the scars to prove it. But, as the aviation safety guru Todd Curtis reminded me yesterday: "The average passenger has a level of fear associated with mishaps during air travel that is very high relative to other risks."

Flying is going to get tougher. As measures are taken to cut the chances of future air piracy, passenger numbers will fall and some airlines will fail. Over the past decade, life for the air traveller became implausibly easy. Fares have fallen steadily to the point where a week's work at the average British wage can take you to the other side of the world. Now prices will start to rise, and passengers will find life much less comfortable in many other ways.

Some airlines will look at the record of El Al. The Israeli airline is a prime target for a range of terrorist groups. Though the robust interrogation that each passenger receives before every flight is far from pleasant, El Al takes pride in its high security. It has not suffered a hijacking for 30 years.

Before the Berlin Wall came down, it was common practice among Eastern bloc airlines for all the luggage to be laid out on the Tarmac, prior to boarding, for passengers to identify before it would be loaded into the hold. This arrangement could resurface, along with many other precautions – all predicated on the basis that an aggressor wants to live. The destroyers of Pan Am flight 103 took advantage of the lax security that prevailed until December 1988 to plant a bomb aboard the Boeing 747, but were safely on the ground when it exploded over Lockerbie.

But as Dr Curtis says, "It is very, very difficult to stop a determined hijacker from causing mayhem on an aircraft if that person is willing to die along with the other passengers."

An awful truth exposed by the hijackings on Tuesday is that no technology yet invented can peer into the mind of each passenger. All the security precautions in the world can be rendered powerless if someone is prepared to take their own life along with a plane full of passengers.

The questions routinely asked at check-in – did you pack this bag yourself, has it been with you at all times since then? – have no relevance to a terrorist with a death wish.

THE WORLD'S two biggest airlines have each had two aircraft hijacked and used as missilesagainst two great cities and thousands of innocent people. Inevitably, each of us will reassess the fundamental reasons why we travel. For most, a glib "because I can" will no longer suffice.

At the core, it is a question of how much faith you place in your fellow passenger and the innate goodness of humanity – and how much you value travel. This week America has witnessed unimaginable cruelty and courage, horror and heroism. With every death, the world has been diminished. But Tuesday's tragedy would be amplified still further if it were allowed to crush travellers' spirit of adventure, and the power for good that aviation represents.

Airlines bring people together. That is what they are for. And, as grief resonates around the world, unity is what we need more than ever.

Simon.Calder@independent.co.uk

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