Simon Calder: A day that will haunt the airline industry for years

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The Independent Online

A few short-term winners will be counting extra earnings this morning: at one stage yesterday, Paris and Brussels-bound fliers switched to Eurostar trains at the rate of 10 a minute. Hotels around Heathrow, Gatwick and Stansted will be counting their extra earnings this morning, as will catering concessionaires at many airports.

But they are vastly outnumbered by the losers. Almost every other business involved in the travel industry will be hit by the security crackdown that gridlocked UK aviation.

The meter started running from the moment the top executives of Britain's airlines were contacted before dawn yesterday. Plans to exclude almost all baggage from aircraft cabins had been agreed well in advance - down to the obligation for mothers to taste their babies' milk before it was allowed through. Yet putting the strict rules into practice brought the world's busiest international airport almost to a standstill, and traumatised the flight network elsewhere in Britain and Europe.

The short-term cost alone could prove crippling to some airlines. In this chronically unprofitable industry, August is a month of plenty, when fares across the Atlantic and to the Mediterranean are sky-high and planes are full. When those aircraft are grounded, though, the true economics of aviation are brought into sharp relief: 10 August should have been a great day for Britain's airlines, but is likely to end up costing them around £10m.

What worries the industry even more is the longer-term impact. "This is the way of the future," one senior captain told me as he led his crew to check-in. The new rules deem even their personal baggage to pose a risk, and they were sent back to check in their cases. If he is right, then their jobs may be at risk.

Much of Britain's commercial aviation is kept afloat by the premium fares paid by business people. Judging by some of the scenes at check-ins yesterday, executives might more readily surrender their children than their laptops, Blackberries and mobile phones. But technology also provides plenty of alternatives to face-to-face meeting, should the stress of air travel - and the inability to work during the journey - prove too daunting.

Many leisure travellers are equally flexible. The expansion of air travel has been fuelled by cheap fares, demonstrating the readiness to travel if the price is right. But if the means of travel become too arduous to justify a fortnight in the sun, the queues may simply melt away, and stay away.

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