Simon Calder: Plane security? Fly Groucho club class

Saturday 09 January 2010 01:00

Breathtaking: Luxor Temple, a 3,000-year-old testament to endurance at the heart of the ancient capital of the Egyptian empire; the genial anarchy that prevails at the Pyramids of Giza, a Wonder of the World strewn across a gigantic car park and camel-rental location; and the fact that, when I flew from one to the other last weekend, no-one paid attention to the security risk I might pose.

Whenever I get arrested, it is because my behaviour patterns are unusual. Police have picked me up for offences as varied as inadvertently photographing an army barracks in Romania, exploring forbidden corners of backstreet Havana and hitch-hiking in suburban Seattle. But I can count on one foot of a three-toed sloth the number of times I have been properly quizzed by security officials before a flight.

My flight from Luxor to Cairo was scheduled for 2 January 2010, 21 years to the day after a first encounter with an official taking a healthy interest in my travelling behaviour. I was flying from Gatwick on the now-defunct US airline TWA.

A fortnight earlier Pan Am flight 103 had been blown out of the Scottish sky, killing 270 people and devastating many more lives. Security staff scrutinised every passport: I had to account for a visit to Turkey the previous summer on a Thomson package holiday to Marmaris.

The only other two occasions involved a round-trip on Israel's airline, El Al, between Heathrow and Tel Aviv. Three hours ahead of departure, I was grilled before being allowed on board. Why was I travelling? Where would I go in Israel? Who would I meet?

Since then, despite a sequence of murderous attacks and narrow escapes on other aircraft, aviation security has dumbed down, relying on process and technology, not intelligent profiling.

When I turned up at Luxor airport last Saturday, I knew exactly what was required to pass the security check: drain my water bottle, remove the coins from my pockets, and I would be deemed safe. But clues in the passenger manifest for EgyptAir flight362 might suggest otherwise. Before I even put my backpack on the scales, someone should have asked "Why did you book so late and pay cash?" (Answer: until the BA cabin-crew strike was called off I did not know if I would be flying to Egypt; and my credit-card company bounced a payment so I had to use cash.)

A glance at my passport would find evidence of visits to a country that the Americans deem a "state sponsor of terrorism (Cuba, which refutes that classification). The passport also reveals trips to cities that have suffered murderous terrorist attacks in the past 15 years: Istanbul, Nairobi, Mumbai.

The explanation for these curious journeys? My job demands it, a story easily checked by consultating an internet search engine.

Opening my backpack would have revealed a close interest in attacks on aircraft: the latest issue of Aviation Security International, plus news stories on the attempted bombing of Northwest flight 253 from Amsterdam to Detroit.

And why was I perspiring and looking anxious? In fact, it was because EgyptAir's schedule was in tatters (the plane actually left the following day) and I had a connection with a BA flight in Cairo.

At this point, in a nation that has experienced repeated attacks on tourists, I would have understood if I had been directed to the nearby slow boat down the Nile unless I could properly account for my plans. Indeed, I would feel safer knowing someone was identifying people whose behaviour – regardless of gender, ethnicity or religion – invited closer scrutiny.

We need a "Groucho" approach to airline security. To paraphrase Groucho Marx's attitude to clubs, I'd prefer not to join a flight that unquestioningly accepts dodgy characters like me on board.

Pyramid selling: do you want history with that?

Another Egyptian enigma: why do consumers of Western fast food get the finest views of the Middle East's most magnificent monuments?

We carry an occasional feature entitled "Plate with a View", extolling the joys of dining in the world's most delicious settings. We stipulate that the cuisine must complement the panorama. But for the best view of the Luxor Temple by day or night, order a burger in the McDonald's opposite. And for an unmatched vista of the Sphinx and Pyramids at Giza, enjoy deep thoughts with a deep dish at Pizza Hut.

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