The announcement last Thursday of an alleged airline terrorist plot aimed at U.S.-bound airline flights from the United Kingdom continues to have an impact on travel from the U.K. to the U.S., as well as within the U.S., and could have long-term implications for business and meeting travel.
In response to the alleged plots, the Transportation Security Administration banned U.S. passengers from carry-ons with liquids, gels, and lotions onto airplanes. The TSA tweaked the list of banned substances over the weekend, and now allows passengers to carry on small doses of liquid medications. Click here for the latest from TSA.
While U.S. airports seemed to recover quickly from the effects these restrictions had on security lines, passengers in the U.K. continue to suffer. Hundreds of flights were cancelled over the weekend and horrifically long security lines became the norm. Airports there had bans in place on all carry-on items, including the laptops, PDAs, and cell phones that have become critical in a business traveler's world.
As of today, British authorities have eased restrictions, now allowing passengers one carry-on bag--17.7 inches by 13.7 inches by 6.2 inches--about the size of a laptop case. Laptops, cellphones, and other electronic items are again permitted in carry-on baggage, while restrictions remain on most liquids.
The No Carry-On Option
Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff, in an interview on ABC Television’s “This Week” Sunday, said “I don’t see us moving to a total ban on hand baggage at this point.” But Kevin Mitchell, chairman of the Radnor, Pa.-based Business Travel Coalition, said that he believes a hand baggage ban is now more likely to be considered.
“Everyone knows this [the threat posed by the alleged bombers] isn’t theoretical,” he said. “It will cause the whole basis of the aviation security mission to be re-examined.”
The problem, says counterterrorism expert Bruce Hoffman of the Rand Corp., a nonprofit think tank, is that aviation security thinking “lags behind” that of certain terrorist groups in the imagination, innovation, and cleverness of its thinking when it comes to counterterrorism.
The trouble with a lack of imagination is that you’re reactive instead of proactive, says Hoffman, director of Rand’s Washington office. “When you go into crisis mode,” he says, “you have no choice but to embrace, by default, the most restrictive solutions,” such as the complete ban on carry-on luggage imposed in the United Kingdom.
Development of new technologies to test for explosives will help, says Hoffman, but technology is just a partial fix that needs to be combined with better training. “You can have the greatest scanning system in the world,” Hoffman says, “but if the human operator is not motivated and attentive, it won’t matter.”
Group travelers would probably “roll with the punch” that a carry-on baggage ban would level at them, says Bill Boyd, CEO and president of Sunbelt Motivation and Travel Inc. of Irving, Texas, but such a prohibition would have a “huge impact” on business travelers with a rollerboard suitcase in one hand and a laptop in the other.
Rumors Fly, Impact Contained
Several meetings and incentive industry professionals contacted here in the U.S. have seen little or no immediate impact to business as a result of the latest threat.
CarlsonGroup of Minneapolis had a group traveling to London on Thursday, the day the arrests were made and the new security restrictions put into place. “It went without a hitch,” says Barbara Hollister, senior director of industry relations and purchasing. “There were no cancellations and no concerns.” Because the group is cruising back, it will avoid the turmoil caused by heightened security at U.K. airports.
Hollister said Carlson had about 1,000 people flying last Thursday. The company sent e-mail blasts to travelers detailing the new security restrictions and suggesting they arrive early at their respective airports. There were no reported cancellations, she said.
Boyd said that on the day authorities announced the security restrictions, his company was deluged with phone calls from participants in a 6,000-member group Sunbelt is sending to Las Vegas this week. “They were asking, ‘what kind of items can we bring on board? Should we be driving?’” Boyd reports. “At that point, all of these new rules were still developing. For the first five or six hours, we had nothing to go on.”
In a post on MeCo, a meeting industry listserv, a planner reported that rumors were rampant among her attendees departing from an event in Florida last Thursday. Among the erroneous reports she heard were that passengers were forbidden to carry on garage door openers and metal sunglass cases.
The Travel Industry Association, in an effort to both reassure the traveling public about the safety of air travel and to avoid the spread of misinformation, has pledged to join with the Air Transport Association to provide clear, consistent messages about the airline security situation. Click here for more details.
Looking forward, Mitchell said the apparent complexity and seriousness of the plot could have business, security, and political leaders lobbying for further steps to enhance the security of the airline industry, which is only now beginning to recover from the impact of 9/11 and the 2000-2001 recession.
“Had the [alleged plot] succeeded, it would have broughtaviation to its knees,” Mitchell says. “The operating assumption prior to [the arrests] was that maybe a shoe bomber could have brought down one airliner. It would have been tragic, but the industry could have got beyond that. Now, everything has changed.”
Mitchell believes last week’s events could result in the lifting of a cap on airport security checkpoint screeners--TSA is limited by law to 45,000--and add impetus to the launch of Secure Flight, the pre-screening program that would check passengers against a centralized terrorist watch list. It could also, Mitchell says, either hinder or expedite implementation of Registered Traveler programs depending on whether airport and security officials believe they direct too much time and attention to a service that benefits a small fraction of the traveling public, or if the importance of reducing security screening delays validates the concept.
As far as group meeting and incentive business is concerned, Mitchell wondered whether U.S. resort properties could see more business in 2007. “Corporate budgets are being put together right now and CFOs and CEOs usually sign off on these budgets in October,” Mitchell says. “We’re right in that sweet spot where people are making [company travel] decisions and commitments. It could mean extra business for U.S. properties if CEOs give up European trips.”
Boyd also speculated airline security concerns could have a positive impact for charter airline companies.