The real Dutch courage
Published 09/01/2010 | 05:00
Since 9/11, I've become a twitchy flier. When someone vanishes from their seat for more than 20 minutes, I'll happily do a scan of the plane or consult a steward just to satisfy myself they're not up to anything.
Waiting in a departure lounge at Charles de Gaulle some time ago, I convinced myself that a fellow passenger wearing a T-shirt emblazoned with the words "F*** the Rules" was an al-Qaeda terrorist.
Not that Osama bin Laden is going to send one of his operatives out on a mission dressed quite so OTT, but I did think it a rather sinister outfit to present oneself at the airport in.
When said individual ended up sitting across the aisle from me on a short flight to Nice, biting his nails obsessively, making sporadic eye contact with a man a few seats behind and disappearing periodically, I cursed the security officials who had let him board and braced myself for the journey from hell.
My husband, the sort of flier who has usually drifted into a deep sleep by the time the safety instructions come on, has a rather different approach to air security. That day, when I whispered my worries into his ear, he took one look at me, one at the prime suspect, considered who was the more unstable of the two and said the immortal words: "If we're going down, we're going down. There's nothing we can do about it now."
In the end, we landed safely and our shady travelling companion turned out to be no more than an oddball with dodgy fashion sense, but I can't help drawing a parallel between that flight and the Christmas Day bomb plot to blow up a Northwest flight with 278 people on board.
A fortnight on from the failed attack that was seconds away from becoming a horrific tragedy, we know now that even the best-defended airports in the world are incapable of keeping terrorists with explosives off planes. We've learned that state-of-the-art security technology isn't worth a toss if it allows a man onto a jumbo jet with bomb-making equipment packed into his underpants.
The standard airport security 'pat-down' would not have stopped Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab from boarding Flight 253 or detected his evil cargo. Even full-body scanners being implemented at high-risk airports around the world today are no longer believed to be the answer to protecting civilians in the skies.
Most security analysts are adamant that it is no longer a matter of if but when the next 9/11-style attack takes place. Right now, somewhere in the clouds, one of al-Qaeda's foot soldiers could be rehearsing a future attack, monitoring security, tracking weaknesses in the system they will seize at a later date. One vital legacy of that terrible day is that cockpits are now impenetrable and pilots effectively untouchable. The danger zone today is the cabin.
On Christmas Day, it was the actions of one brave Dutch man, Jasper Schuringa, that saved the lives of hundreds of people. He smelled smoke, saw fire coming from the row ahead of him and took immediate action, leaping over seats and passengers to get to the source.
If there is one lesson to be learned from his selfless heroism, it is that we all need to be more vigilant when we fly, taking our heads out of our papers and iPods every so often and keeping an eye on what's going on around us. We've nothing to lose by becoming more aware of our fellow passengers. We could end up with a lot to gain.