A new threat for air travel: A comparison between safety measures during Covid-19 and after 9/11

Photo by John McArthur on Unsplash

Tourism has been one of the hardest-hit sectors of the economy. So, one cannot help but wonder: when will we be able to travel freely and safely overseas? And more importantly, what will we need in order to be able to board a plane?

Aviation has historically learned from its mistakes, so it is – for sure - expected to experiment with changes in safety measures in the next few years, as a direct effect of the pandemic.

Not the first time aviation security tightens

Since the start of the pandemic, the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO), the International Air Transport Association (IATA), and governments all around the world, have worked together to design a secure way of returning to a normalised air travel operation.

The ICAO, in cooperation with the WHO, have developed the Council Aviation Recovery Taskforce (CART), a document which includes a series of recommendations for States and airlines in order to re-open the skies as safely as possible.

The aim of this document is to provide guidelines for airports, airlines and governments to follow to prevent the spread of the virus. Mr Alexandre de Juniac, Director General and CEO of IATA, established that safety is always the number one priority for air transport and that the challenges of COVID-19 have added a new dimension to their efforts.

But this is not the first time aviation sees its safety threatened. There is a date in time that will forever be remembered by the world and that has marked a major turning point in international aviation security forever.

Immediately after the 9/11 attacks in the US, in 2001, all air traffic was grounded in the country and the skies remained empty because no one could risk the possibility of a new attack. Since then, a package of measures was designed, which we are now familiar with. Before the attacks on the World Trade Centre, it was not usual to have luggage checked, it was not necessary to possess a boarding pass in order to wander around the airport gates and no one checked passengers’ IDs.

According to aviation security expert John Harrison, there were eight reasons why aviation held attraction for terrorists: it was a powerful, symbolic target, it provided an international stage, it provided extensive media exposure, it was relatively simple, the consequences were enormous for both the airline and the country, it could be politically embarrassing, it was a useful tool for revenge, and it was effective.

But even before 9/11, airplanes were already a target for terrorist attacks. Since 1988 when the Pan Am flight 103 fell from 30.000 feet right to the ground due to a bomb inside the airplane, there is a regulation regarding checked luggage without its owner on board the plane. Thus, it is possible to have a flight delayed because the airline needs to remove luggage from the aircraft from a passenger that did not show at the gate on time just in case the bag contains a threat to the safety of the flight.

But these measures were clearly not enough since there have been incidents where terrorists willingly boarded planes carrying bombs or explosives themselves. After the September 11 attacks, experts started to implement almost instant measures: boarding passes became mandatory to enter an airport, the US established a restriction on liquids, metallic knives and forks were removed from airplanes and were replaced by plastic ones, cockpit doors were reinforced, new detection equipment and methods were put in place, full body “pat-downs”, exhaustive cargo screening and even behavioural detection officers were introduced.

At present, passengers are familiar with all these intensive security operations, but back in 2001, people deemed these measures as a limitation to their freedom. So, how will travellers react to the Covid-19 restrictions for air travel?

Airports are now the centre of attention regarding the return to normality considering the number of people that daily went through international airports before the pandemic. This is the reason why different measures were put in place by the ICAO, the IATA, and worldwide governments. These include limited access to the terminal for workers and passengers, constant disinfection of facilities, sanitising stations all around the terminal, restrictions on availability of food in airlines’ lounges, no airline magazines inside the airplane, the prohibition to walk by the aisles unless extremely necessary, and a negative PCR test before departure and arrival, among others.

Daniel Goz, who runs a YouTube channel known as Nonstop Dan in which he reviews airlines and talks about different aspects of the aviation industry, commented on this by saying that airlines will do everything they can to minimise the new measures. He said this is different from the 9/11 measures, as the measures after the attacks were pushed by governments. So, as long as measures are optional for the airlines, they might go away as soon as it will be safe to do so.

The fear of flying returns

After the 11 September attacks, a fear of flying flooded the world, especially the United States. Numbers show that only some days after the attacks, 43% of Americans were already less willing to fly. Therefore, governments had to act fast enough to assure a prompt recovery, though it took years for the passenger flow to return to those before 9/11.

As for the COVID-19 pandemic, passenger traffic went down almost 90% in April 2020 with the prohibition of air travel, and it is expected to recover only a mere 35% or 20% for June 2021.

Even though there have been previous epidemics, they have hardly affected international air travel. The SARS and MERS outbreaks in 2003 and 2005 respectively, posed little danger to aviation safety as they both proved to be difficult to transmit. This explains why aviation security experts were so unprepared and took more time to start imposing restrictions to reduce the impact of the coronavirus crisis.

And although passenger numbers are not bound to pick up 2019-scale numbers until 2023, airports and airplanes are now more prepared than ever before to face a biological threat, making flying relatively safe. Not to mention the fact that all airplanes are equipped with HEPA filters, which filters out a large percentage of particles, circulating the cabin air once every 2 to 4 seconds.

So, to a certain extent, and by taking a few important precautions, constantly wearing your face mask and sanitising your hands often, one can look forward to enjoying a flight in this new way of travelling. Although it is important to remember to contact your airline of choice for guidelines about how many and which type of facemasks you should carry on the flight and to ask about limitations to carry hand sanitizer.

In connection with this, Daniel Goz said: “I definitely think that a lot of people want to return to the skies and to travel as soon as it’s safe and they’re vaccinated, and countries will let them in.”

Will the vaccine change the scenario?

The short answer is no, at least not as soon as people would like it, but it could perfectly be the light at the end of the tunnel we are all waiting for. As the number of people vaccinated around the world increases, some countries are already talking about “vaccination passports”. Among those issuing or asking for vaccine certificates are Cyprus, The Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, Greece, Hungary, Iceland, Italy, Poland, Portugal, Slovakia, Spain and Sweden.

Concerning this issue, Goz thinks that a vaccination passport is crucial for the return to a more normalised version of air travel and that, although there is a debate of whether a vaccination passport should be used domestically, that is a completely different issue. He considers that when it comes to international travel, a vaccination passport will be extremely important and expressed his disappointment because there has not been an effort earlier to make a consistent passport for the entire world or, at least, the EU to allow people to travel since we are already seeing so many countries introducing policies favouring vaccinated travellers.

However, this idea is not exempt from ethical controversies. One example is the UK, where, after Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced the ease of restrictions for the upcoming summer, Britons started to plan their summer vacations. The PM addressed the ethical issues about governments' role in mandating people to have any form of Covid vaccination credential.

France is also hesitating. With fewer than 2.5 million people vaccinated in France, the government refuses to discuss vaccination passports. And, despite the urge of some member states to restart tourism, the EU has not reached a consensus on this issue yet.

Oceania is a whole different scenario. With a vaccination campaign beginning in Australia, Air New Zealand is planning to implement a digital vaccine passport in April as a trial to restart flights between Auckland and Sydney, and Qantas is following its fellow airline with similar ideas on mind.

Having said that, whether vaccination certificates are implemented or not, they will not ensure an instant normalisation of air travel. This is due to the fact that it is not clear yet if vaccinated people can unknowingly carry and spread the virus. Therefore, it is essential to keep adhering to all recommended safety measures, at least until the whole population is privileged enough to access the vaccine.

A ray of hope

If we all want to see airports full of enthusiastic travellers again, it is important to understand that threats to air travel can often come as hidden threats. Whether or not the COVID-19 procedures at airports and on airplanes will remain in place forever – which is unlikely - the experience has demonstrated that it is crucial to pay attention to all the dangers that aviation security and safety may face in the future in order to implement strict preventive actions to make the skies the safest they have ever been.