Since August last year I have made three trips to India (via Bahrain, Dubai and Mumbai) and two trips to Oman (via Bahrain and Doha). I started each journey from four different airports (Heathrow Terminal's 3 & 4, Gatwick, Muscat and Chennai). In all those journeys the thing that stood out the most was the sharp contrast in security checks in each airport. It stood out for three main reasons.
Firstly, London's two biggest airports had been in a heightened state of alert since 9/11, 7/7
and particularly 10/8
(The August 2006 Transatlantic Aircraft Plot
). Secondly, India had been victim to several terrorist attacks in recent years and were in the midst of an intelligence crisis involving a potential conspirator
in the Mumbai Attacks of November 2008
, who had allegedly made several trips to India, including one to Mumbai days before the attack. And thirdly, that the so-called police-state dictatorships of the Middle East had a more than passing interest in the current climate of the global terrorist threat and significantly, its implications on their security.
You'd think that most, if not all the airports I flew through would have had a fairly standardised (ie, stringent and thorough) system of security checks. Wrong. The gulf in security particularly that for hand-luggage, between the London airports and their Middle Eastern and Indian counterparts struck me as ironic. Here was a liberal democracy inconveniencing and invading the privacy of every passenger in the name of security, while in the authoritarian East there was a comparatively negligent and indifferent attitude to security.
In London, pat downs were performed on every single passenger, regardless of whether the metal checker detected anything or not. Rarely was one allowed to walk through the detector with their shoes and belt on. All liquids/sprays had to be in 100ml (or less) containers and scanned separately by the X-ray machine. Laptops and jacket-like clothings also had to be taken off/out and scanned separately by the X-ray machine. And following the alleged incident on Christmas Day
, the authorities now want to rush in the body scanners. Civil liberty campaigners have challenged the government
on whether the scans will contravene our child pornography laws.
In comparison, the security in the Middle East and India was almost non-existent. Few pat downs, hardly any of them as thorough as the ones in London. If the metal detector beeped and the security area was not teeming with passengers, the security guy would perform a token check with a handheld detector, but most of the time they seemed uninterested. None of the airports necessitated liquids/sprays to be held in transparent ziploc bags and not once did I see any container above 100ml disposed of. On every transit journey via Bahrain, Doha and Dubai, I was able to keep the 500ml+ bottle of water with me that I had picked up in either Mucat, Chennai or London Duty Free. And until Heathrow nabbed my 150ml deodorant on my latest trip last month, not even London's airports detected its illegitimate passage across the world and back in twelve separate journeys between August and November.
Unfortunately, I'm still not sure how strongly I feel about airport security. On the one hand I want air travel to be safe, especially as my family, friends and I frequently use it. On the other hand, I don't feel true to my liberal ideals by accepting these erosions into our personal spaces and civil liberties for the sake of protecting air travel. I'm not even sure the security in London's airports are as effective as they are made out to be necessary, especially when one considers that the more relaxed security regime in the Middle East and India has not resulted in any incident till date. Yet I get the distinct impression that the halcyon era of stress-free air travel has disappeared forever. Each new attack will erode the few existing liberties that remain and it could have a huge impact on global travel.