Disasters — or potential disasters defused at the nick of time — have the effect of completely changing the methods by which one tries to prevent them in the first place. Air travel, being the most globalised form of the way humans move, has undergone paradigm shifts in its safety procedures over the decades. During the Thirties and Forties, air ships, a popular modern mode of long-distance travel, used hydrogen in all countries except the US. Despite being flammable when mixed with air, hydrogen was seen as a cheaper option and provided greater ‘lift’. The paradigm shift occurred when the Hindenburg burst into flames while landing in 1937. By a decade, hydrogen for air ships was prohibited and safety won over economics.
Last week’s discovery of a terror plot involving the mid-air destruction of 10 airplanes will have a similar effect in air safety regulations. A shift had already occurred immediately after September 11, 2001, with passengers having to go through ‘more secure’ security checks, a stringent passenger profiling procedure, limitations to hand luggage and some airlines providing armed air marshals inside planes to tackle hijackers. With the pre-emptive action in London, there will be another ‘permanentisation’ of safety procedures. The fact that the potential hijackers had planned to blow up the aircraft with material cobbled out of ‘everyday’ objects such as a harmless beverage has made authorities limit the kind of hand-baggage even further. Laptops, mobiles and other electrical devices will be kept out of cabin areas, as will be fluids that include perfumes and alcoholic beverages bought after luggage has been checked in.
The airline industry does, however, run an airline business. This means that a balancing act is required between passenger comfort and passenger safety. For this purpose, pragmatic measures need to be introduced. For instance, a designated area inside the aircraft can cater to baggages that passengers (especially those with connecting flights with hours to spend in airports) can have access to just before and after a plane takes off or lands. Air travel safety, whether domestic or international, will be tightened as it needs to be. A similar procedure should be put into place for railways in the country. No form of travel can be made terror-proof. But it would be foolish not to lower the chances of (human or accidental) disasters occurring by vigilance in the form of mandatory procedures.