Two men can easily intimidate 200 people, if the pair happen to be carrying semi-automatic weapons. This was the scene on Tuesday at Heathrow Terminal 1, the hub of British Airways' short-haul operations. The armed police watched sternly as passengers struggled with their luggage: the one-piece-only rule for economy customers on BA had just taken effect. People who had previously packed a couple of mid-sized bags were now having to cram everything into a single 23kg case.
Crikey, you may think; BA is going over the top, drafting in trained killers from the Met to enforce its controversial new baggage policy. But that wasn't the case (indeed, my experience at a couple of airports that day suggests that BA check-in staff are applying the rules with flexibility). The armed police were actually in the baggage reclaim area - and unwittingly demonstrating the wrong-headedness of Britain's aviation security policy.
The couple of hundred people in Terminal 1's antiquated arrivals area were from a range of countries and cultures. They shared just one attribute: they, and their baggage, had been screened for weapons and explosives to internationally agreed standards. Twenty yards away, through Customs, another couple of hundred people shared a very different characteristic; none of the relatives, friends and minicab drivers waiting to meet passengers had been screened for weapons and explosives. Yet the only visible police presence in the terminal was deployed to watch a crowd who had already passed through rigorous security checks.
PASSENGER AIRCRAFT are attractive targets for terrorists, because a relatively small amount of explosive can destroy a plane and hundreds of lives, generate vast amounts of publicity and strike terror into future travellers.
The consequence is that you and me, young children and elderly travellers are all assumed to be guilty until proved innocent. Every passenger and airline crew member is regarded as a would-be suicide bomber until the security checks on themselves and their baggage show otherwise.
Stories abound in aviation about the absurdity of entrusting the safety of 400 travellers and a Boeing 747 to an aircraft captain, but then removing his or her toothpaste on the grounds that it constitutes a security hazard. The magazine Aviation Security International reports that a policeman going through security at one UK airport before boarding a police helicopter was allowed to take his CS gas canister and revolver through - but the pint of milk he was carrying was confiscated.
"BE AFRAID. Be very afraid," sums up the Government's message to travellers. "The current terrorism threat level is Severe," warns the Home Office website. "An attack is highly likely."
But Britain's next terrorist outrage is unlikely to involve an aircraft. I fear it could take place in an airport departures or arrivals area; anyone can wander into any of our airports carrying enough weapons or explosives to cause carnage. MI5 agrees, saying: "Terrorist cells are increasingly looking at less well-protected 'soft' targets where Westerners can be found, such as... transport networks (rail, road and airports)."
A small risk could be reduced further if travellers' baggage was searched as they enter the airport terminal. This happens in a number of places, including Athens. And perhaps it is time to ban friends and relatives, the "meeters and greeters" at arrivals and "weepers and wailers" at departures. These measures would make a lot more sense than deploying armed police to watch new arrivals who manifestly pose no threat.
NEW ZEALAND, which mercifully has not earned a reputation for invading other countries on spurious pretexts, can afford to take a refreshing approach to aviation security: it trusts travellers. For many domestic flights, passengers just walk straight on to the aircraft. Visitors sometimes compare New Zealand to Britain 40 years ago; the notion of accepting that people are basically good is one aspect of the Sixties that is most welcome in a troubled 21st century.
THE NEW FLYING SQUAD
HOWEVER MISERABLE the flying experience, increasing numbers of Brits are prepared to endure it in order to enjoy the benefits of living abroad but working in the UK. Dream Commuters, a Money Programme special to be broadcast on Friday, says that 5,000 British citizens move abroad each week - but many keep their jobs here and use cheap flights or the Channel Tunnel to get to work.
The programme tracked down two cartographers from London and Sussex who now live in south-west France and Barcelona respectively. They commute by air to their office in Hampshire, buying flights as soon as they go on sale to benefit from the lowest fares.
I must say, the name of one French village I spotted just east of Carcassonne has great appeal: it is called Tranquillaire. But my recent experiences of air travel have been far from placid. A GB Airways flight over the Bay of Biscay hit such bad turbulence that the captain said: "Return to your seats and lash yourself to the mast."
Dream Commuters: 7pm, BBC2, 23 FebruaryReuse content