Travelling safely

Yesterday was another successful day for anti terrorism. I was especially grateful as I was travelling to and from Manchester by public transport in order to make a speech there. We should not tempt providence or take things for granted. The anti terrorist police and Intelligence services are to be congratulated for all the networks and plots they have intercepted to make us safer.

I wanted to get to Manchester and back as quickly as I could. For reasons I will describe tomorrow that meant I had to go by car and plane, rather than by car and train. It meant experiencing once again the security and customer handling at Heathrow. There are a few questions I would like to raise about physical security, as opposed to intelligence and policing work.

The main worry yesterday at airport security seemed to be women who might be concealing bombs in their scarves or boots. They all had to take these off and put them through a scanner. All of us had to remove our belts, any men wearing boots had to take those off but shoes were fine, and all had to remove coats and jackets. No-one was found with anything wrong whilst I was in the queue. Meanwhile at the station no-one was searched for anything, despite the fact that terrorists have attacked trains as well as planes in recent years. The first question I have is why do we treat air and train travel so differently?

Because it took each person time to take some of their clothes off, find enough trays to put it all in, and prepare for the scanners,there was a long queue. There were not enough scanners available and open. When you choose which queue to join it is not possible to see which queue is longest, owing to the way the queues were controlled, so some people had to wait longer than others depending on the lottery of the queues. Why can’t they provide more channels? Why can’t they have proper overall queue control so waiting times are fair?

Security also required three different checks on the boarding card of each pasenger. We had to queue to have the boarding pass checked before being allowed into the security check area, we had to queue again to have the boarding card re checked to get from the security check area to the gates, and then again to gain access to the plane from the gate. I see the obvious need to check everyone at the point where they board the plane, to make sure we know who is on the plane, to check they are on the right plane and have paid the fare. I assume they also want to have a check on every person first going airside, so they can make sure all who reach airside can be accounted for. Why do they also need a third check on the boarding card?

As someone who has urged splitting up the monopoly over London airports I hope that when these main airports are in different ownership we will see improvements in the way security checks are handled. It is, after all, taking time away from shopping at the airport, and putting passengers into a mood where they are less likely to be willing to spend.


  1. no one
    March 12, 2010

    On a flight to Glasgow

    I had to hand over a small military issue can opener to security as they decided it was "a security threat"

    Which it wasn't in my view, far too small, small army issue blunt can opener, my metal pen or keys would make better weapons but they were not and never are challenged

    The security guy who did this was wearing his ID badge back to front so that nobody could see his name (quite a common trick at the airports you will notice, easy way to avoid complaints which can be tied back to an individual) so I asked him to show me his ID badge the correct way around and I then wrote his name down and told him I would make a written complaint later and left normally for the lounge

    He obviously reported this encounter to his boss who came running looking for me, and gave me a long list of threats "we will have you taken off the flight" etc, all in front of my travelling companion

    He wasn't bright enough to realise he didn't know who either of us were, we could have been off duty cops, or even an MP!

    Told him firmly that we had handed the item over, we were in no way trying to board the flight with any item they had issue with, but that we did not agree with their assessment of the danger, and that we would make a written complaint later

    He was obviously upset and not very good at basic customer interaction skills

    After more threats and then realising he had nothing on us he gave us the can opener back and let us board the flight!

    I'd forgotten about this until I read your story here

    Totally arbitrary nonsense from the security folk, I could easily kill someone with my metal pen but these are routinely let through

    And they caved in and gave the item back! What a silly system

    And like coppers not wearing their numbers on their shoulders airport security not displaying their ID badge the correct way round goes on far too often

    Yes the queue management is bad

    Worst of all if the nonsense you get if you are diabetic and are going away for a fair while carrying a few months of insulin, for one you are supposed to be carrying it in a cooling packet – not the clear plastic they want, so many problems and unnecessary embarrassment having to explain medical conditions in front of other passengers

    And then we get on to parents carrying human milk prepared in bottles to feed the baby on the journey, being asked to taste it – absolutely disgusting
    All in all its obvious to me there are still easy ways for terrorists to get through, and far too much hassle for ordinary members of the public

    But its not just security the airports are terrible at looking after their customers more generally, I'm surprised the staff are not decked more often the amount of hassle the passengers get

  2. alan jutson
    March 12, 2010


    The difference in levels between the requirement of aircraft security and train security, is a total numbers/total loss risk.

    A small bomb on a plane will kill everyone, because the plane crashes, the same size bomb on a train will only kill those who are close to it, all other passengers in other carraiges would be still be reasonably safe.

    Having said the above, I would completely agree that the system of security, with endless queues, which means that even arrival two hours before a flight, is now on occassions leaving things a little tight.

    If a system is consistantly/always a one hour wait, a two hour wait, or a tree hour wait, then its flow is running to time, as the flow is keeping pace with the requirement, once it has caught up. So there really is no excuse for a long queue at all, its all about pre planning the demand.

    Flying is no longer a pleasure (certainly not in cattle class) and is a last resort for me, unless no other sensible option is available.

    Clearly you did not pay the extra for fast track, if you did, you were done !!!!

    1. alan jutson
      March 12, 2010

      Second thoughts fastrack only gets you checked in fast, think you still have the same security issues, queueing with the masses.

      Unless you are a Government Minister, then you can get on when you like, (guess your underpants are not inspected) and then use the bus lane of the M4, and go past all the other normal people who are queueing on it to get to work.

  3. Simon D
    March 12, 2010

    Money drives the length of security queues at airports. More scanners open = more operatives to pay that day = more costs.

    Far better to inconvenience the public and save costs.

    Solution: better regulation of airports by the authorities.

  4. gac
    March 12, 2010

    US Customs, Banks and even some Post Offices have the right queuing idea – a single 'snake' line controlled by an attendant who then guides one to the next available agent.

    Fair, effective, but clearly too simple.

    1. Acorn
      March 12, 2010

      Very much agree gac. The Heathrow guys should spend a few days at Chicago airport. The place appears like a nightmare but it all works.

      Recently, we was late into Chicago from Colorado due to bad weather in the Rockies. The airline told us it would be tight to catch the overnight to Heathrow, but "Chicago knows you are connecting" said the agent. Later, "we have got a gate on the same concourse as your London plane; you'll be OK". Four Brits even had time to get the duty free!

  5. Tony
    March 12, 2010

    Can't see anything on your blog about Northern Rock looking likely to give a profit to the taxpayer. Time to admit you were wrong?

    reply: All I see is more reported losses for taxpayers.

    1. APL
      March 12, 2010

      Tony: "Northern Rock looking likely .."

      'looking likely' is a long way from 'has made'

      From what I understand they have split the operation into a 'good bank' and a 'bad bank'. The bit with the worthless assets, will never make a profit and taken in the round the whole will not either.

    2. Mike Stallard
      March 12, 2010

      Ghanayan proverb:
      Oturofo na osay "Ochina, Ochina".
      Tr: It is the liar who says "Tomorrow, Tomorrow".
      Northern Rock and Brooding Genius of Downing Street, please note.
      Oh – and Lord Adonis about the trains.

  6. Alan Wheatley
    March 12, 2010

    Times have changed.

    I used to fly periodically between Heathrow and Manchester. At that time there was the Shuttle – for those who do not know, a service where you could simply turn up and go with a seat guaranteed, even if BA had to put on another plane.

    On one memorable occasion I stepped out of my taxis at Manchester Airport and walked through the terminal building, waved my ticket at an official who beckoned me through, and into the aircraft without stopping. Being just in time to catch the scheduled flight, the door closed behind me and before I was settled in my seat the aircraft was already moving.

    How times have indeed changed!

    1. Mark
      March 13, 2010

      I had almost exactly the same experience many years ago at Heathrow – parking at 7:43am and running all the way to the gate and onto the plane for the 07:45 am departure to MAN, plane moving before I found a seat. I've even caught the Belfast shuttle arriving at the gate with 5mins to go, in the era when they did full fingertip search of all baggage, and thorough body search on a supposed 20min minimum check-in.

  7. Stuart Fairney
    March 12, 2010

    The big joke is if you charter a plane as some friends and I did a few years ago, security is almost nil.

  8. Simon
    March 12, 2010

    I agree that air travel has lost any pleasure that it may have had and this is because of the mindless security procedures.
    Security staff are both poorly trained and doubtless poorly paid (peanuts and monkeys come to mind). There is absolutely no flexibility or lee-way allowed either in the procedure or by the personnel, which is why you have old gentlemen with Parkinson's disease made to struggle and remove belts and shoes unaided, and nail scissors are confiscated whilst steel pens are allowed (@no one). I understand that the use of full body scanners which would ease the process is now in question as human rights may be infringed. I understand that any form of profiling (a la El AL) is also out of the question, again for human rights reasons. Certainly the system is a shambles and it doesn't take a genius to see that it can easily be improved both from a traveller and security perspective.

  9. Andrew Duffin
    March 12, 2010

    For goodness' sake don't give the idiots ideas about train travel.

    I am looking forward to my next trip to Italy being by train.

  10. Martin
    March 12, 2010

    Security rules at airports are often state sponsored stupidity. You get checked for things and can then buy potential weapons e.g bottles of booze in the terminal. I tend to boycott airport shops in retaliation for the security stuff.

    All the terrorists do is move the point of attack (e.g. Glasgow Airport attack on the front of the terminal). To those who think that only cattle class passengers should be security checked please remember that the terrorists can fly in the front as well. The worst part of this security business is that passengers have to pay for it (it is hidden in the ticket cost as a Tax or Fee!) and have no effective legal remedy for rubbish service.

    Regarding railways the numbers make airport checks impractical as does the nature of the system. Imagine trying to put security at Winnersh Station etc etc. After the bomb attacks on the Tube security was increased but it is very expensive/impractical and the system was never designed from a passenger security viewpoint.

    Eurostar has security checks as well as Immigration etc. but that is a simple point to point system.

    Another queue that needs looking at is incoming border controls from the EU. This is bad at Stansted. Nu-Labour chickened out of joining Schenegen because it was scared of the press. I'm not convinced that we are any safer or more dangerous than Schenegen countries e.g. France or Germany. These border controls just make the UK less attractive to visitors from other EU countries and don't make us any safer. The asylum seeker stuff could be sorted out by sorting out the benefits system.

    On the economy side I trust you noted the inefficient use of aircraft caused by all the traffic jams waiting to use the Heathrow take off runway.

    1. Les
      March 12, 2010


      You make many good points which as a weekly commuter to Germany I fully agree with. Stansted has the new biometric passport readers installed but I have only used them five times out of my last 75 odd trips, they are usually switched off. I think the UK should sign up to Schengen and do away with the border controls, it doesnt seem to have hurt Germany, Benelux etc. The UKBA could then be scaled back dramatically saving billions for us taxpayers.

      Regarding your point on the aircraft queuing at Heathrow, this is NATS policy as it does not have a departure manager to schedule the flights efficiently from Gate to runway, thus to maximise capacity it is better to have a number of aircraft at the holding point ready to go. This does not happen at Schiphol where the investment has been made in IT systems rather than tarmac.

      1. A Zimbo
        March 18, 2010

        Of course Shengen hasn't "seemed to have hurt Germany and France". The asylum seekers pass through those countries on their way to Britain. In fact actively encouraged through by the French. Doing away with border controls removes our last chance to catch them before they disappear into NuLiebour's illegal black market economy.

  11. Lindsay McDougall
    March 12, 2010

    It's simple. The government wish to make travelling by air an unpleasant experience so that people will travel by train. They do this by pressurising BAA to make stringent and time consuming security checks. When high speed rail lines are introduced, and found to be white elephants after opening, the pressure will be intensfied.

    (Demand forecasts for rail projects often have an element of cock-eyed optimism in them. This is deliberately encouraged by pro rail officials in the DoT.)

    The problem is made worse because the government fails to discrimate between passenger types. (proposes profiling to check those more likely to be terrorists)
    Another common sense measure is to apply immigration policy in such a way as to reduce the proportion of the population likely to commit criminal and/or terrorist offences. And if we have to rip up a few international treaties in order to do so, let's do it.

  12. no one
    March 12, 2010

    on the train versus plane thing

    i do generally find the eurostar security folk much better than their airport equivalents

    and of course on eurostar you can watch you baggage for the entire journey reducing the chances of it being nicked to neglible levels

    just wish i could get to chicago or KL on eurostar

  13. AndyC
    March 12, 2010

    Airport security has become a disgrace in recent years, both in terms of its unnecessary intrusiveness, silly rules (the one regarding liquids is clearly designed to maximise profits in the shops once you clear security) and the way the whole process is sourly managed by BAA. Passengers are treated like cattle and then expected to be grateful afterwards.

    Smaller regional airports (which should be used more) are usually better, but the experience at Heathrow and Gatwick is invariably dreadful.

  14. Keith
    March 12, 2010


    As head of the 10 downing street policy unit in 1985, presumably you have some insight into why the disastrous decision was taken to privatise BAA in 1986 with a monopoly of the London airports and an ineffective regulatory regime (heavily criticised by the Competition Commission in its recent report).

    I'm sure it must have been obvious to anyone at the time to anyone with a good understanding of economics–such as yourself–that this would inevitably lead to poor customer service, high charges, and a reluctance to add capacity.

    Perhaps the deliberate intention was to maximise the flotation value by endowing the newly private BAA with a generous monopoly?

    Reply: I argued for break up at the time. The management won the day with their argument in favour of retaining the main assets together.

  15. Jonathan
    March 12, 2010

    A security expert said on German TV just after Christmas that most of the checks and worrying about them is pointless as you can buy everything you need to cause mayhem from Duty Free; thus rendering security even more pointless.

  16. Ruth
    March 12, 2010

    I stopped flying a few years ago after a particularly dreadful experience at Manchester (it's not just Heathrow) where the rules were applied arbitrarily and seemed to change every day. How lip gloss can be safe one day and dangerous the next escapes me. The worst thing was that Manchester used to have a separate check in for domestic passengers, but then they changed it so domestic and international all queued together and it took forever, so domestic passengers missed flights.

    I would agree with other posters that confiscating something you can then buy in the terminal is just madness.

  17. Mike Stallard
    March 12, 2010

    The security checks are awful. It is humiliating having to undress and dress again and have your body patted all over as if by your doctor. It is shaming when the alarm goes off, as it always seems to, and everyone looks at you accusingly. Stripping in front of a screen reminds me of nothing so much as the holocaust.
    That is why, on Monday, we are going to go on a cruise by sea instead of a trip by plane. AND we can take as much luggage as we like and have leg room and be encouraged to walk about……

    1. no one
      March 12, 2010

      yea the newcastle – amsterdam ferry is great

      as are the plymouth to spain ferrys

      as is eurostar

      when going to scotland i try to take the sleeper train rather than fly

      the feeling is strong because of the so called security at the airports

      cannot be doing UK business much good so many people feel like this

    2. Eotvos
      March 13, 2010

      The alarm goes off for one pax in eight – it's random so not every eighth pax – even if the machine detects nothing. This is a scandalous waste of time and inconvenience.

  18. Jonathan Bryce
    March 12, 2010

    Airport security is just "security theatre". It is designed to give the impression that they are doing something, when actually, as events have shown over the past nine years, it does nothing but annoy ordinary people who wish to get on with they journey.

  19. Bazman
    March 12, 2010

    I have often wondered even before the Mumbai massacre, how long (the police-ed) would take in central London or some other soft target, to sort out a Mujahideen gang with a plan who are armed to the teeth and in full state of the art body armour? I would sue the police if I found myself riddled with bullets or blown to pieces or at the very least, phone Boris Johnson.

  20. Tom
    March 13, 2010

    The reason why there is no security for buses and trains, yet there is over the top security and invasions crossing the line of personal privacy and civil liberty, is simply to condition the masses of people who pass through airports every day that this sort of checking and submission to "authority" is somehow normal.

    It is conditioning for nothing less than a police state in violation of the sovereignty of the individual, the free man and the free woman.

    The implications, and the trajectory of the airport security precendent are far reaching and profound.

    All because of 9/11.

    .. yet why no independent investigation over something which is clearly affecting everybodies lives, our freedoms are trampled on and privacy is not respected?

    Ordinary people have somehow become the victims and are seen by the state, and authorities as a potential thread and a danger unto themselves.

    Only last month over 1000 architects and engineers demanded "a truly independent investigation with subpoena power in order to uncover the full truth surrounding the events of 9/11/01."

    Yet this has not been reported by the media.. nobody wants to touch this, and people asking questions surrounding the source of all the fear of terrorism, security crackdowns, legislation erroding civil liberties etc etc are labelled as conspiracy theorists and put down with ad hominem attacks.

    Its high time to analyse the root cause, instead of fretting over the symptoms IMO.

  21. no one
    March 13, 2010

    You heard the new "anti terror hotline" radio adverts?

    "Got a neighbour who keeps himself to himself?

    Got a neighbour that keeps their curtains shut?

    Got a neighbour who pays for things in cash at the shops?

    It may be nothing but ring it in"


    That's its now I really do live in a police state

    Far too politically correct, they should be realistic and profile likely terrorists better, not people who keep the curtains shut and pay cash !!!

    madness sheer madness

  22. Eotvos
    March 13, 2010

    I've travelled extensively by air for many years and there is no doubt that the worst airports in the world for this inconvenience are all in the UK, especially LHR,LGW,GLA,EDI and ABZ ie the airports owned by BAA. MAN a close second.

    Even in the USA where they take this very seriously the lines move quickly and the staff are usually pleasant. You can also decline the radiation hazard that is the full body scanner.

    John is right that the break up of BAA would improve matters.

    Like other posters here I boycott the shops at BAA aiports.

    If the secuity staff search my bag I monitor them closely to make sure they do not put anything in it – that's the measure of how much I trust them.

  23. a.s.
    April 10, 2010

    Security scanners should be at the departure gate NOT after passport control. The queues these searches foster are frustrating for the people they are meant to protect without any assurance whatsoever that they are effective.

    There is so much room for circumnavigating security via the shops, restaurants, airport staff etc. airside. I can't imagine every last box of sun tan lotion in Boots or every last book in Smiths is checked?

    However, an easier way I discovered last week when returning from a Caribbean island who happily let us walk onto the flight with large bottles of water (it was hot) … walk off the flight in London and pass all the outgoing passengers along the walk way and hey ho that evil bottle could easily be on the next flight to ………………??

  24. cheap ghd
    May 7, 2010

    Yet this has not been reported by the media.. nobody wants to touch this, and people asking questions surrounding the source of all the fear of terrorism, security crackdowns, legislation erroding civil liberties etc etc are labelled as conspiracy theorists and put down with ad hominem attacks.

  25. rolex daytona
    May 27, 2010

    Another queue that needs looking at is incoming border controls from the EU. This is bad at Stansted. Nu-Labour chickened out of joining Schenegen because it was scared of the press. I’m not convinced that we are any safer or more dangerous than Schenegen countries e.g. France or Germany. These border controls just make the UK less attractive to visitors from other EU countries and don’t make us any safer. The asylum seeker stuff could be sorted out by sorting out the benefits system.

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