Will airline passengers have to drop their trousers in 2010?

Two-thousand and nine has been an unkind year for the airline industry. On Christmas Eve, the industry could look back on 2009 as the year that forced carriers to slash fares to ridiculously low Boxing Day-style prices to stimulate demand, helping to drive some 30 more carriers into bankruptcy and others closer to it. Air Canada narrowly avoided another bankruptcy filing and fired its CEO as its share price dropped below $1; WestJet struggled with a new reservation system that caused headaches for customers and employees alike.

That was Christmas Eve. As WestJet and Air Canada executives sat down to dinner that night, they could at least console themselves that an improving economy would bring better times in 2010.

Then, the worst news of all came on Christmas Day.

An Airbus A330 operated by Northwest Airlines — now little more than a subsidiary of Delta Airlines — was about to land in Detroit when a Nigerian passenger, Umar Farouk Abdul Mutallab, tried to ignite explosives fastened to his leg. Other passengers courageously tackled the would-be bomber, and the aircraft landed safely.

This attempted bombing wasn’t supposed to happen. After 9/11, the attempted “shoe bomb” attack, and the foiling of a plot to bomb trans-Atlantic flights leaving from the U.K., airlines and airport escalated security to ensure no one got on a commercial jetliner with the means by which to carry out a terrorist attack.

In October 2008, I flew the same airline and type of aircraft as the bomber — it might have been the same Airbus A330 for all I know — out of the same airport, Amsterdam Schiphol. Entering the gate, I was questioned by a grim-looking woman who examined my passport and tickets, wanting to know more about my travel plans, what I did for a living and where I had been in the preceding days.

After passing through another security check — shoes off, belt off, no liquids or gels — I joined the 200-something other passengers in a ridiculously crowded “sterile” boarding lounge that had all the charm and the popluation density of a refugee camp.

The would-be Detroit bomber presumably went through the same screening process on Christmas Day. Being a male traveling alone, he might even have been subjected to a little more scrutiny than usual. He still managed to get aboard the aircraft with dangerous goods in his possession.

So much for the extra security.

In the hours after the attempted bombing, passengers began to hear of new security measures coming into effect:

  • All laptops and other electronic devices to be turned off not just for take-off and landing, but for the final hour of the flight as well
  • All passengers to remain seated for the final hour of the flight
  • All passengers departing Canada for the U.S. to be body-searched
  • One carry-on item per passenger
  • No access to your carry-on items and nothing to cover your lap during the final hour of the flight

This raises a few questions:

  • How long will it be before the “final hour before arrival” rule is extended to cover the entire flight? If anything, a  flight is least vulnerable during the last hour in the air: an onboard explosion is less likely to be disastrous at lower altitudes and airspeeds, there are more airports nearby to divert to for an emergency landing, and the crew doesn’t have to concern itself with the added risks of trying to land the aircraft above its maximum landing weight in an emergency. A mid-flight incident, perhaps as much as three hours’ flying time from the nearest suitable airport, would be much more dangerous.
  •  

  • Will this convince the airlines to scrap their checked-baggage fees? This policy seemed to be based on their naive hope that: a.) their customers wouldn’t notice that a $100 rollaboard suitcase could pay for itself after just four round-trips; b.) that their customers wouldn’t cram the bins to the max with every possession they could possibly bring aboard, adding to the time it takes to turn around an aircraft between flights; and, c.) that their demoralized employees wouldn’t notice that the path of least resistance is to stop enforcing size and weight restrictions. The one-carry-on rule will only make matters worse.
  •  

  • Will this destroy the airlines’ buy-on-board programs? It’s not as if many passengers are shelling out much money for the junk food the airlines are selling now. If the lineups for that one last trip to the restroom are going to entend half-way through the cabin starting from two hours before arrival, and there won’t be any access whatsoever during that final hour, it would be smart to eat and drink as little as possible before and during the flight. (You won’t be allowed to cover your lap either, gentlemen, so forget about bringing a blanket and an empty bottle on board in case you urgently need to go.)
  •  

  • Could this be the start of a renaissance decade for train travel, and of a boom in regional travel, as the hassles of air travel get to be too much?
  •  

  • Will airport security become more like Customs, with even domestic travelers being questioned about their travel intentions and sniffer dogs checking passengers and their carry-ons for explosives? (Would it be too facetious to suggest that there might even be male and female screening areas, with everyone being told to forget their inhibitions and strip to their underwear?)

There’s an old joke that goes like this: “When you have to tighten your belt, you’re in a recession. When you no longer have a belt to tighten, you’re in a depression. When you lose your pants entirely, you’re in the airline industry.” In the new decade, that last sentence might turn out to be bitterly ironic.

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About theviewfromseven
A lone wolf and a bit of a contrarian who sometimes has something to share.

3 Responses to Will airline passengers have to drop their trousers in 2010?

  1. Fat Arse says:

    I predict that passengers will be required to submit to “full rectal exams” by 2012!

  2. Fat Arse says:

    Addendum to my previous comment – The new mantra for screening officers at Canada’s airports will soon be: “Bend over and fart.”

    Sorry, couldn’t resist, I know, I know, … I will now, full of shame, go wash my mouth out with soap 😉

  3. theviewfromseven says:

    LOL!

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