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Terror threat to UK, US

FRANCIS JOSEPH Sunday, August 13 2006

ONE DAY, airline passengers will wake up to the news that they cannot take any luggage with them on flights.

That sounds far-fetched, but that is the reality in light of last Thursday’s alleged terror plot to blow up ten planes between the United Kingdom and the United States.

Life has become more difficult for airline passengers, and many may now consider flying to be a necessity rather a pleasure.

Life for passengers changed on September 11, 2001. That was the day when Islamic terrorists hijacked and flew two American Airlines planes into the World Trade Centre twin towers in Manhattan, New York, killing thousands of people. It was later discovered that the terrorists learnt to fly right there in Fort Lauderdale, Florida.

Stringent measures were put in place as people all over the world were cautious about flying. Then in 2003, British national Richard Reid changed life further when he attempted to detonate a bomb in his shoes on another plane en route from France to Boston, USA. Had it not been for Trinidadian professional basketballer Kwame James, that aircraft would have been blown up. Life changed again. More security measures were put in place where passengers were ordered to take off their shoes and belts at the security check-points.

With last Thursday’s announcement that terrorists were planning to detonate liquid bombs on flights, passengers will no longer have access to hand luggage. All they are required to have on the planes are passports, tickets, pocket size wallets, and nothing else.

For persons like myself, I no longer have the luxury of having my laptop and cell phone in the cabin with me. That means putting an expensive laptop in my suitcase to be flung all over the place by those don’t-care baggage handlers. Not only that, realising that passengers cannot carry hand luggage on the planes, nimble-finger ramp attendants may now be tempted to do their own searches all over the world on the pretext of security checks.

Travelling to London and the United States has become a horror story. You are now required to be at Piarco International Airport three hours before the scheduled departure. It may be longer if the plane is delayed or if the security checks last much longer.

All your suitcases are searched at Piarco, not by authorised Airports Authority personnel, but by persons contracted by airlines. They know exactly what you have in your luggage for tansfer to the aircraft. When that tedious task is over, you approach the ticket counter to get your boarding pass. A clear plastic bag is given to you to put your passport, ticket, and pocket size wallet with credit and ID cards.

It had been tradition in the past to buy food items at Piarco and take them on the flight with you as only snacks are served on aircraft heading to the United States. It had become the norm to have chicken and chips and sandwiches to eat while watching the movie in flight. Many passengers walked with bottled water and juices on the plane. That is no longer permissible going to the UK and US.

You have to eat whatever you want at Piarco. Make sure you brush your teeth at Piarco because not even a tooth brush or tooth paste is allowed as hand luggage. Imagine undertaking a ten-hour flight to London without brushing your teeth! What about women, no make-up kit to freshen themselves after that long flight. Not even a comb to tidy their hair after that long flight. No deodorant for that “smelly” passenger who may be next to you. It becomes a flight of endurance in many ways.

Another headache for the passenger emerges when he enters the duty free area. No passenger heading to the UK and US can buy duty free items. Duty free operators at Piarco are bawling already as most of their money comes from passengers leaving Piarco. It had become the norm to buy duty free items to take abroad, but with the new restrictions, it has become a graveyard for duty free operators. Some are even thinking of reducing staff because of the gross reduction in sales.

At the final security check-point, Airports Authority personnel carry out their usual duties with the assistance of the scanners. But extra monitoring is needed to ensure that passengers pass through the area with what they are supposed to have.

The new measures put a dent in the drug trade. Passengers who are inclined to take drugs in their hand luggage, are now re-thinking their strategy. They can strap the drugs to their bodies, but with the extra searches, that can only be described as a waste of time. They can swallow the drugs, but that is not done at the airport, but days in advance of travel. Swallowers are being detected because of the new measures put in place by Senior Supt Raymond Craig, head of the Organised Crime, Narcotics and Firearms Bureau.

When passengers feel this is the final check, think again. As you are about to board the aircraft, there is one more check. Persons who are not security personnel, but ramp attendants are performing the duties of searching passengers. Most passengers have no problem with these persons doing this job, all in the effort to ensure safety in mid-air. But the way they speak to passengers, may you wonder if every passenger is a potential terrorist.

You then walk into the aircraft ‘naked’ because you have nothing to put in the overhead compartment. No newspapers to read, no food, no water. You sit in your seat and you are now at the mercy of the flight crew.

I must say that over the years, I have met a courteous and wonderful set of flight attendants on BWIA and hopefully, nothing will change.

On arrival at Heathrow International Airport, London, the K-9 dogs are onto you as soon as you leave the aircraft. One policeman said this has been going on since September 11, and heightened after the attacks on the train stations and bus in London on July 7, 2005. He said the latest terror plot increased surveillance and while aircraft arriving from Trinidad and Jamaica and searched primarily for drugs, the authorities have included substances that could make explosive devices.

At the Immigration counter, the officer questions you at length about your visit to the UK. The officer wants to know where you are staying, what purpose you are in England, how long you are staying and when was the last time you were in the UK. Then you are on your merry way. At the Customs area, both uniformed and plainclothes policemen with dogs are conducting more searches. This poor, elderly couple from Trinidad, nearly got the scare of their lives when the dog stopped and started sniffing and barking at their luggage.

When a check was made, it turned out to be foodstuff stacked away in the suitcase. Now that I am in London, I have to be aware of the terror threat here. Potential attacks on the subway and buses are real. It may be safer to walk or take the expensive black cabs. But that is living in a world of paranoia. The next few days will be interesting here as the Brits move against the suspects they held last Thursday.

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