Scared out of the sky

Peter Smith | 7 March 2003

Statistics that tell us we are 155 times more likely to die in a car crash than on an aeroplane have consistently failed to reassure a sizeable minority who are frightened of air travel (1). 

Now, the air industry’s overreaction to terror threats is fuelling the post-9/11 fear of flying.  Stunts like the recent deployment of armed troops to most major UK airports and tanks to London Heathrow to guard against potential terror attacks are only likely to increase people’s post-9/11 apprehensions about travelling by air.

To date, the one suspect the UK authorities have arrested – a man who arrived from Venezuela to the UK Gatwick airport with a hand grenade in his luggage – seems to have been spotted more by chance than by design.

If there had been specific information regarding a particular suspect or a particular flight, would it really have been necessary to surround airports with troops and to close terminals? In the past, such scares would have been dealt with in a more routine and low-key manner, precisely to avoid spreading of panic.

The airport security measures taken in Britain at the end of February 2003 were a continuation of the kind of measures that have become the norm for the travelling public since 11 September. From the relatively everyday experience of having to eat your food with plastic cutlery (even in First Class) to tanks on runways, the airline industry is increasingly being organised around worst-case scenarios.

Far from ‘enjoying the flight’, most people’s experience of air travel is today one of nervousness and uncertainty. From the constant monitoring by security staff to armed sky marshals, the image of air travel has taken a turn for the worst post-11 September.

The numbers of people flying has fallen. Figures published in January 2003 by the Civil Aviation Authority show that bookings for summer 2002 were 6.3 percent down on the previous year. This represents one million fewer holidays sold (2). In terms of flights, the Association of European Airlines (AEA) recently confirmed that air traffic in Europe is 4.5 percent down from 2001, and in the USA the figure is a more worrying 7.6 percent (3).

In such times, you would expect industry leaders to act to reassure the public. Yet the Economist reports that even the AEA itself has cancelled its February 2003 conference due to fears of war (4). Industry types can hardly complain if the travelling public follows their lead by avoiding the skies at times of perceived risk.


Low-cost carriers like EasyJet and Ryanair have remained relatively immune from the problems facing the air travel industry. Indeed, some claim that they have taken commercial advantage of the major airlines’ downturn. But given the recent reactions to perceived terrorist threats, it is difficult to see for how long this sector can remain unaffected.

The authorities now react to alleged threats with the worst-case outcome in mind, rather than taking a sober assessment of a situation. Add to this a media that seem to relish being the first to break the latest terror horror story, and we are in danger of terrorising ourselves. In short, we could be doing the terrorists’ job.

In January 2003 a German psychology student with an ‘astronaut fixation’ managed single-handedly to close down, not only Frankfurt airport, but the whole of Frankfurt’s financial district, the railway station and bridges across the River Main, after he threatened to crash a stolen light aircraft into a skyscraper (5).

In December 2002, Charles de Gaulle airport in Paris visually stepped up security after a baggage handler was arrested for possession of guns and explosives. For days, this was headline news – although, with the trial yet to come to court, it seems the suspect was set up by disgruntled family members (6).

In November 2002, the UK media made great play of the fact that a passenger was able to travel to Zambia on her husband’s passport (7). What should have been considered a minor security breach by check-in and immigration staff again became a ‘security scare’ headline story.

Sometimes, little more than misinterpreted conversations have caused major security alerts. In October 2002, RAF Tornadoes were scrambled after passengers told cabin staff that they had overheard fellow travellers having a suspicious conversation. The plane was landed and the suspects escorted off by police. It turned out that they had been discussing the plot of a movie, which had been wrongly interpreted as a suspected hijack plot (8).

In early March 2003, Birmingham Airport authorities banned the sale of the popular children’s comic The Dandy because the current issue includes a free, bright yellow and blue plastic toy gun. The publishers DC Thompson & Co argued that the decision was ‘a hysterical overreaction as it’s obviously a toy and nothing more’ (9).

Today, our reactions to perceived threats are arguably the greatest contribution to a growing sense of nervousness about air travel. And with the ongoing Iraqi crisis, such reactions are likely to become even more prominent in the coming months.

Peter Smith works for a leading independent travel company

(1) Editorial, The Times, 18 February 2003

(2) Nervous Britons still fear flying, BBC New Online, 6 January 2003

(3) Press release, Association of European Airlines, 5 February 2003

(4) As Bad As It gets?, The Economist 17 February 2003

(5) Frankfurt Flier ‘has astronaut fixation’, BBC News Online, 6 January 2003

(6) Weapons find sparks Paris airport arrest, BBC News Online, 30 December 2002

(7) Security fears at Heathrow, BBC News Online, 25 November 2002

(8) Fighters scrambled in BA jet alert, BBC News Online, 3 October 2002

(9) Airport bans toy gun comic, BBC News Online, 1 March 2003

Author: austinwilliams

Austin Williams is the director of the Future Cities Project and author of a number of books on the environment and on China. The latest are "China's Urban Revolution" (Bloomsbury) and "New Chinese Architecture: Twenty Women Building the Future" (Thames and Hudson).

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