Kate Simon: Passengers face tighter controls and longer check-ins

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The fear on the faces of passengers disembarking last Friday's Delta-Northwest flight 253 from Amsterdam to Detroit will have touched anyone due to board a plane in the near future. For this latest attempt to bring down an airliner will conjure up those terrifying thoughts that most of us had put to the back of our minds.

The rigorous checks at airport security implemented since the 11 September attacks – removing shoes, bagging up liquids – once added a frisson of fear but have become a mere irritation. Yet, Friday's incident revealed how important those controls are and continue to be – and why we'll probably have to get used to our privacy being invaded.

Early reports suggest that the suspected bomber sustained serious burns, indicating that the explosives were concealed close to his body. Leading security experts are speculating about whether al-Qa'ida – attributed with inspiring the plot – is experimenting with new techniques to evade detection. Consequently, airport security is under scrutiny again, which may mean we'll see the swifter introduction of smarter methods – or perhaps just more sniffer dogs.

With American airports now on high alert, could this spell the return of the hostile "welcome" for foreign visitors at their border controls? Certainly, the Americans will be vigorously enforcing their latest security enhancement, Esta (Electronic System for Travel Authorisation), which is due to be fully implemented on 20 January. Most of us who fly to the US enter under the Visa Waiver Program and are now required to complete this online application no later than 72 hours ahead of travel. Forget to fill it in and you won't be allowed on the plane.

But will Friday's incident result in British travellers staying at home? Travel from Britain to the US slumped after the 11 September attacks. Yet, Sean Tipton of Abta, the travel industry organisation, maintains that this was due to the high-profile nature of the threat. "On past experience, such incidents very rarely stop the UK market travelling," he said. "People tend to be phlegmatic about terrorism threats. We've had terrorism as a reality for 40 years and people take the view that it is a fact of life." Mr Tipton confirmed that, as yet, Abta hadn't heard from its members about any cancellations as a direct consequence of Friday's incident.

The Department of Transport has ordered all British airport operators to tighten controls on flights to the US, and passengers bound there are already being warned to allow more time to check in.

Nightmares such as Friday's incident are rare in relation to the number of flights crossing the Atlantic each day; and air travel is by far the safest form of transport. Such truisms might offer little solace to the passengers of flight 253, but they may provide the rest of us with a sense of perspective.

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