Ways to make sense of airport security

COMMENT: Euro MP Geoffrey Van Orden argues that barefoot queues of passengers don't improve airport security MICHAEL O'Leary, who runs Ryanair, says al-Qaeda “must be rolling around the caves of Pakistan, laughing at us” because of the new hand baggage restrictions at our airports.

COMMENT: Euro MP Geoffrey Van Orden argues that barefoot queues of passengers don't improve airport security

MICHAEL O'Leary, who runs Ryanair, says al-Qaeda “must be rolling around the caves of Pakistan, laughing at us” because of the new hand baggage restrictions at our airports. Although his motives may be commercial, I rather agree with him.

The new rules don't make much sense and the public must wonder whether or not the authorities know what they are doing. And I don't find the sight of machine-gun toting policemen wandering around our airports very reassuring - on the contrary, it reminds us how bad security has become.

The aim of terrorism is to terrorise. Wall to wall media coverage, and the wooden response of airport authorities to the recent alleged plot to attack transatlantic flights, does the terrorists' job for them.

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Everyday travellers and holiday-makers are filled with anxiety, their lives are disrupted and they are not convinced that the measures are effective.

We are stretching the tolerance and resilience of the travelling public to the limit as they stand barefoot in endless queues, clutching the few remaining belongings not yet designated as forbidden items, knowing the pointlessness of the whole inflexible process.

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The mindlessness of the system is displayed not just by the collection of nail scissors displayed at the airport, but every time we see someone such as that clearly respectable woman, the personal contents of her handbag systematically displayed to all and sundry, denied access because the antique decanter she is carrying is marginally wider at the base than the dimensions prescribed for hand baggage. Apart from anything else, the time wasted on her was not being devoted to worthwhile subjects.

There have to be security checks, both on the public side and airside.

But these should make sense and be flexible. Above all, they should be targeted more effectively. This means 'profiling'. This is not some excuse for racial discrimination which is both unjust and counter-productive. Profiling involves a number of factors - age, gender, dress, behaviour, travel plans, ethnicity, and religion.

In spite of the frustrations they have to deal with, most security personnel at the airports are courteous and good-humoured. But they need to be better trained, better paid, and have a proper career structure that will encourage professionalism.

Neither we, nor the system, can cope with treating everyone as a potential terrorist. This has to change. We have to invest more in technology, because that makes it harder for the terrorists. But every technical solution encourages a technical alternative. We need to emphasise the human factor in our security approach. Improved intelligence, pre-airport checks, more use of surveillance and CCTV, and better co-ordination are all needed. At the moment about ten different agencies are involved at our airports. That is why the Conservative Party has called for the establishment of a UK border police force to secure our borders, and for the appointment of a dedicated Minister for counter-terrorism.

We have much to learn from the Israeli example. Passenger numbers through British airports may prohibit the full system used at Ben Gurion airport, where all passengers are personally 'interviewed' before they are allowed through departure. Stansted averages about 2 million passengers a month, double those going through Ben Gurion.

But profiled passengers should be briefly interviewed. It would also help improve the current appalling lack of knowledge about comings and goings through our ports of entry and exit. And besides some common sense flexibility - such as enabling bona fide musicians to travel with their instruments - I would like to see rapid introduction of proposals for a "trusted traveller" scheme which would allow tens of thousands of regular and safe passengers fast-track through airport security checks.

Once we have tightened up the airports then the terrorists will look elsewhere for easier targets. We cannot protect everywhere, we have to get to the terrorist first. So you cannot deal with the security of air travel, or for that matter travel by train or boat, in isolation from wider measures to deal with the security threat. For years now, Conservatives have been calling for reimposition of proper controls at our ports of entry, for effective steps to deal with the catastrophic asylum and immigration system, and for measures to limit the influence of extremists and assist the integration of the settled immigrant population into mainstream British society.

No mention was made of any of this at the informal London Meeting of EU counter terrorism experts a month ago. It is also curious that the European Commission thinks it has to give the green light to new security measures for Europe's airports. Governments of EU countries should co-ordinate their response - but this must not be an excuse to extend the competence of the Commission into new areas. Certainly the British Government must resist any further attempt to remove our national veto on justice and policing matters. The International Civil Aviation Organisation, with its global reach, is the appropriate body to ensure that airports around the world meet security needs. The most effective response to terrorism is first-class intelligence, backed by sensible, well-targeted policing and tough penal measures. That's the way to restore public confidence.

Geoffrey Van Orden is Conservative MEP for the East of England, focusing on Essex and Suffolk. He is Conservative Spokesman on Defence and Security Policy and a Member of the European Parliament's Transport Committee. He can be contacted at gvanorden@europarl.eu.int or 88 Rectory Lane, Chelmsford CM1 1RF

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