I was about to set off on a 3-hour drive to Birmingham airport this morning. Not to catch a flight – I had a meeting scheduled there (it’s a media project). As I was preparing to leave, however, I received a message from the airport to inform me they needed to postpone the meeting. They said they had to clear their diaries to ‘man the press office all day’. I’d already seen the news coming from Zaventem Airport in Brussels, and soon after from the Maalbeek Metro Station, near the EU buildings – so it was understandable. ‘Reassurance statements’ were already being issued from Heathrow and Gatwick, as well as from Frankfurt, Paris and other European airports – and no doubt Birmingham would be on high alert, too.
Security levels for UK airports are dictated by the Department for Transport, and most airports have been operating at a ‘heightened level of security’ or ‘severe’ for a long time. Birmingham Airport, like Heathrow, Gatwick and Stansted, was quick to put out a statement to say that there continued to be ‘a high-visibility police presence’, and that the safety of its customers and staff was of paramount importance.
Boris Johnson appeared on the news to say that there was no intelligence to suggest any immediate threat at airports in the UK, ‘but as a precaution and for the purposes of reassurance, there has been a stepping up of the presence of police at major airports’.
Take note: ‘for the purposes of reassurance’.
But how reassured can we really be?
With questions already being asked about the security and police intelligence in Belgium (particularly as Salah Abdeslam had been able to avoid capture since November, whilst possibly living pretty freely in central Brussels), I’m not sure it is fair to point the finger at them (not yet) for any security lapse at Zaventem Airport. A ‘front of house’ airport attack has been a threat in the aviation industry for a long time, whilst the Maalbeek Metro Station attack is an eery reminder of 7/7. I was caught up in 7/7 in London, in 2005. I’d commuted in to Liverpool Street station late that morning (thanks only to celebrating my son’s birthday at a noisy breakfast), just after the first tube bomb had gone off near King’s Cross, precisely where I needed to get to. No-one knew what was happening. I couldn’t get the tube, as normal, and so I got on a packed double-decker bus instead, which then became gridlocked in traffic. There was no Twitter or social media/newsfeeds. It was only later, when I saw the TV news showing the carnage on the Underground and another bus with its roof blown off. I still shudder when I think about our own packed bus (refusing to open its doors to let passengers off and walk) … I can’t imagine what it must be like for those who were seriously affected or physically injured or scarred that same day …
But what I’m saying is that it affected me. I don’t like big crowds. I can feel claustrophobic very quickly. And I travel a lot – I’m on a plane once every 10 days (tomorrow included) – and I’ve become more and more conscious of the threat of long queues and massed ‘check-in’ areas that are open to the public. Brussels was a terrorist attack simply waiting to happen – but I don’t know what can or should happen next. The only place I feel relatively safe at an airport nowadays is ‘air side’ (which is once you’re through security). I always try to travel without having to check in any luggage, too. I just take a laptop/carry-on bag – but there’s always still a long queue waiting to go through the security check itself, so I’m not sure if it makes much difference.
If you create new security checkpoints outside the airports, you would simply make new ‘massed people’ areas outside the terminals. More security queues create further crowds, further targets. Instead, I believe we need more plainclothes security, armed police, canine patrols and ‘sniffer dogs’ at the entrance to terminals, within the terminals, as always, and patrolling the shopping areas. I can’t think of any further security solutions for tubes, trains, buses or coaches, other than the same as above – and vigilance. But the simple and terrifying truth is this: nowhere is safe.
My thoughts are with everyone affected by the atrocities in Brussels today. With at least 34 confirmed dead, the acts were simply barbaric, to say the least. I have several friends who live or travel there frequently. They’re all safe, thank God.