Thursday, 5 November 2015

Fear of flying

Yet another passenger aircraft falls out of the sky - I'm talking about the latest example to hit the news, the Russia-bound Airbus that flew out of Sharm el-Sheikh and disintegrated over Sinai.

The British government considers that there was a bomb on board, which implies that security at the Egyptian holiday resort airport wasn't good enough. Understandably this has infuriated the Egyptians, partly because they feel it is a slur on their own capabilities, and partly because the forensic work has hardly begun, and so there is no proof yet of what the British government believes must be the case - although our government claims to have special evidence that conclusively justifies the action it has taken. Which is to stop flights from the UK to Sharm el-Sheik, and bring British holidaymakers home safely. That is, to evacuate them. Or in yet other words, rescue them from a life-threatening situation. Who can blame the Egyptians for seeing this attitude, and this act, as likely to affect their tourist industry quite badly?

And yet a government that acts fast to get its citizens out of trouble is surely being caring and responsible. Cynics will naturally sneer that this is a government scared of criticism for doing nothing until too late. Well, I dare say it is indeed playing for safety, possibly being over-cautious, and certainly jumping the gun on the forensic inquest. And being advised (i.e. told) to go home at once will curtail or spoil many a current Red Sea holiday. But if I were out there, I would in the circumstances appreciate the chance to board a homeward-bound plane specially laid on, especially one examined by British security experts and guaranteed to be bomb-free. Getting home safely, and staying there, would suddenly seem very appealing.

We will see more and more of this kind of thing. Many countries like Egypt have economies partly or mainly dependant on holidaymakers. In the last few decades, many political and business deals (clean and dirty) must have been done across the world to ensure that this country or that gets a thriving tourist industry. Holidaymakers bring money. Beautiful beaches, guaranteed sunshine, exotic nightlife, packaged local culture. It's a winning formula, and if all the right ingredients are put in place, local prosperity will follow and the people will be content. Frightening the holidaymakers away is an obvious method of spoiling the game. It stops the flow of easy money, brings back impoverishment, fosters resentment against the government, and isolates the country by making it seem unsafe. It also curbs Western influence and withers Western-type institutions, definitely an important ideological goal in some parts of the world. Ultimately the country becomes ready for trashing in a civil war, and a take-over by the winning faction. Egypt fears going that way. So the British government's swift vote of no-confidence is not only insulting but may begin a process of destabilisation. A knife in Egypt's heart, no less.

And there doesn't necessarily have to be a bomb on any plane, merely the suggestion that a terrorist organisation has planted one, or could have. It's therefore (from the terrorists' point of view) worth claiming responsibility even if the plane was brought down by a natural event or a straightforward mechanical failure.

Only extreme measures at airports - directed at the plane, its crew, the passengers, and every item that may be concealed in their clothing or baggage - will ever 'guarantee' immunity from bombs when flying. But implementation would throttle the process of flying so much that the airlines would go into sharp decline. And yet striking a reasonable balance between security and passenger convenience is bound to introduce a degree of risk.

We all live with risk, every day. But some risks can be avoided. For instance, the risk of climbing mountains, or the risk of being a Formula One racing driver, or an astronaut. Or the risk of getting into a commercial aircraft.

Personally, I feel very disinclined to fly again in my lifetime, if there is another way to get to my destination. And I won't be cutting out an important part of my life by any means. Let me see: I first flew in 1971 (Mallorca). Then in 1972 (Mallorca again), 1974 (Jersey), 2007 (USA, New Zealand, Hong Kong), and 2010 (Guernsey). That's all. It's not much flying! But I feel no deprivation, and no urge to fly again. I can't be sad about it. It's never been a yearned-for experience. It's not a romantic or comfortable way to get from A to B. It involves hassle and delay and significant expense. It requires patience and endurance. It enforces immobility for too long - and I am vulnerable to deep-vein thrombosis. It's boring and tiring. It's all these things, even without playing Russian Roulette with the terrorist bomb that might be on board.

It may seem an odd thing to say, but I'm rather glad I don't now have the spare money for a long-haul flight. In fact this lack of capital is keeping me out if harm's way. That's how I look at it.


  1. The thought of dealing with the horrors of the Irish airline to visit family in France was so ghastly that we decided to drive 3000 miles instead!

    Flying long ago lost its glamour and has become a tedious cramped flying bus with cramped passengers sent through an obstacle course of middle of the night disorganised queues for checkins, and intimate security checks followed by hours of hard seats if you are lucky. I could go on but have reminded myself why it will be the car again next year...

  2. One of the best holidays I had was travelling by train to Austria. If I'd been blogging at the time, it would have been worth several long posts. Others in our little hotel, who flew to Innsbruck, missed all the fun.

    1. I used to love train travel but hate the new lottery for tickets and chaos which occurs if a delay makes you miss a connection. Too many stories of people being held to ransom for absurd fares for being on a wrong train going to exactly the destination where they bought a ticket to. You used to be able to make a choice of routes svn after buying a ticket if problems showed up ahead...

      The joy of staying at home gets better every year.

  3. We were at the airport in Sharm el-Sheikh just hours before the air-bus going to Russia crashed. We made it home safely, if we'd left a day later we'd still be in Egypt now. I have to say I did find the security checks in the airport very casual. The male staff seemed more interested in flirting with my two daughters.


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