Simon Calder: The Man Who Pays His Way

Is airline security a joke?
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The Independent Travel

"This is a warning for everyone who wants to play stupid jokes," says Samantha Marson, the British student arrested at Miami airport this week after saying her bag contained explosives. Airline passengers on another Heathrow-bound flight believe that the security precautions themselves are a bad joke.

"Would all the suicide bombers please form an orderly line at the departure gate?" That seems to be the logical conclusion of the latest weapon in the war on transatlantic terrorism: asking travellers on flights between Washington and London to volunteer to be searched.

On 15 January, British Airways flight 228 was being prepared for its usual evening departure from Washington's second international airport to London Heathrow. Among the passengers were Charles Beckman, a public relations specialist at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore; his wife, Liz, a music teacher; and their two children. All the passengers passed through the initial screening. But when they reached the gate, an announcement was made on the public address system that a new policy meant half the passengers needed an additional check before boarding. Mr Beckman takes up the story.

"They said: 'We are asking for volunteers to stand up to be screened so that we can expedite the process for take-off.' All the law-abiders lined up, while my wife and I just looked at each other."

Secondary checks at the departure gate are made by staff of the Transportation Security Agency (TSA), a US government body set up in the wake of September 11 2001. They are routine on both US domestic flights and transatlantic departures. The normal procedure is to select passengers randomly for extra security controls.

Mr Beckman speculated that it was a clever ruse whereby all those who had not volunteered would be searched, but this was not to be. "They had several of the TSA guys carefully going through the bags of all the law-abiding citizens."

A spokeswoman for British Airways says, "As a result of the heightened state of alert in the US recently, we were mandated to carry out secondary 'continuous and random' searching on passengers travelling to from the US. As customers queue at the boarding-gate, a certain percentage are selected randomly to undergo additional searches. We have looked into this case and have been assured that standard procedures were followed for the flight in question."

BA has cancelled several of its flights between Heathrow and Washington's main airport, Dulles, because of terrorism fears. Earlier this month, shortcomings in security were revealed when a passenger carrying live ammunition was allowed aboard a Virgin Atlantic jet to Heathrow.

Mr Beckman believes his experience on BA 228 represented a similar lapse. "By the screening procedure that was used, this was an unsafe flight." He and his wife considered making a complaint to the captain, but concluded that this could cause a delay of several hours. "We took a calculated risk and it paid off," he says. "It struck us that this was a new low in airline procedures. We hope that it won't happen again."

BA's spokeswoman says, "We apologise to any of our customers who were concerned by this process. The safety and security of our customers, our staff and our operation is always our absolute priority and will not be compromised."

BRITISH AIRWAYS is in a difficult position on its transatlantic routes. Because these comprise by far its most lucrative market, it has little choice but to acquiesce to every demand made by the US security authorities: from allowing federal agencies to dig into passenger computer records to cancelling flights because of security concerns. But surely naming a plane after the US president sets new standards in servility?

At Newcastle airport this week, my easyJet Boeing pulled up next to a BA Airbus A320 that is supporting the President's re-election campaign. As you can see from the picture (right), it bears the registration code G-BUSH.

The airline insists that there is a perfectly innocent explanation for this apparent tribute to the most powerful man in the world, and claims that the interesting registration is not of its doing.

The plane is one of 10 A320s ordered in the Eighties by British Caledonian, shortly before the independent airline was devoured by BA. In aviation's parallel to personalised number plates, each was awarded the prefix G-BUS-. The final letter was assigned according to the order in which the planes arrived. This particular aircraft was the eighth, delivered in 1990, during the presidency of George Bush Senior.

"Just a coincidence," says the airline.

Bill Swan, like many artists, is a gentle and sensitive soul. His pen-and-ink sketches have graced many a travel guide, covering everywhere from the old Soviet Union to South America. But he is uncharacteristically indignant about a giant poster that has just appeared in Piccadilly in central London. The image decorates the French Travel Centre, and adapts the familiar figure of Leonardo da Vinci's "Mona Lisa" to show the figure thumbing a lift. The purpose is not to encourage Italian women to hitch-hike to France, but to promote one of Europe's Capitals of Culture for 2004: the woman is holding a small sign reading "Lille". Yet, this last detail aside, the work clearly emulates one that Mr Swan conceived and executed nearly a quarter of a century ago. His version was drawn for the book Europe: A Manual For Hitch-hikers, published in 1980.

"This apparent breach of copyright is regrettable," says the publisher, Charles James of Vacation Work - but he is prepared graciously to overlook it. "I suggest we all hold back from suing the worthy maire and commune of Lille in the hope that we shall be installed as freemen of the city." In any event, the legal position is muddied because Mr Swan was not actually the artist responsible for the original "Mona Lisa", which currently resides in the Louvre in Paris (making the artwork a strange choice to promote a cultural festival in the far north of France).

The suggestion that thumbing is the ideal way to reach Lille seems intended to upset Eurostar, which is the UK's official carrier for the event. The train operator's director of communications, Paul Charles, says "We can make the 'Mona Lisa' smile - all she needs to do is buy a £55 return ticket from London to Lille on Eurostar." The company has also put a smile on the face of Mr Swan by giving him and his own "Mona Lisa", his wife Dee, a round-trip by rail to Lille to save them having to hitch for their cultural fix.

Publishers are prone to boast of a book "walking off the shelves", signifying a best-seller. But for the past decade, many travel guides have been taking a hike without pausing at the cash register. Stores have lost so many that they now keep popular guides under the counter. In the manner of unsavoury magazines, customers have to ask for them at the till: "Pssst - have you got the Rough Guide to Paris?".

As you may have read in The Independent this week, the roaring trade in stolen travel guides is largely down to Ronald Jordan, who has just been convicted for what City of London police describe as "a case that was a flashback to Dickensian London". For years, he has run Britain's cheapest travel bookshop, on London's South Bank. Drug addicts and homeless people were paid £1 for every new travel guide they stole. To help their unlawful endeavours, they were even provided with a hit-list of shops to target.

The retail side of this unusual business comprised a white van parked beneath a railway arch at Waterloo, with hundreds of brand-new guides laid out on trestle tables. The books sold at two-thirds of the cover price, representing a handy saving for buyers, and a massive profit for Jordan; the police have traced £350,000 belonging to him. He is to be sentenced next month, but one bookseller believes the trade will continue.

"It's taken 10 years to do anything about it. The guy has been brazenly selling clearly stolen goods for the best part of a decade. It won't stop."