How terror trip taught me a lesson in airline safety
A disturbing experience on a transatlantic flight convinced Ed Curran of the need for full-body scanners at airports
Imagine flying across the Atlantic and coming to the conclusion that you might have a suicide shoe-bomber sitting beside you. It happened to me a week ago on what I can only describe as the most frightening flight of my life.
Maybe all my years in Northern Ireland encountering so many bomb scares fired a degree of paranoia. But what happened on United Airlines flight 619 from Washington to London has left me with serious doubts about airline security.
The two passengers sitting next to me behaved strangely throughout the flight. Male and female, they refused to fasten their seat-belts at take-off and, surprisingly, none of the airline staff enforced the rule.
Their behaviour across the Atlantic was so eccentric that I drew it to the attention of the cabin staff, one of whom said they would "keep an eye on them".
Approaching London, I had cause for even more alarm. Once again, the two passengers, wearing heavy overcoats, ignored the seat-belt instructions.
At that point a stewardess stood in front of the female passenger and fastened her seat-belt. Her male partner, who clasped his hands together in prayer for much of the flight, reluctantly fastened his own belt.
No sooner had the Boeing begun its descent over southern England than he began to roll back each trouser leg and remove his shoes and socks and then replace his shoes.
Then he unbuckled his seat-belt, stood up for the first time in six hours and 40 minutes of the flight and walked up the centre aisle.
A steward approached him and allowed him to enter the toilet - even though the plane was now descending fast. I don't now how many eyes were focused on that closed toilet door, but the sense of apprehension in the faces around me was palpable. It seemed like an eternity before the errant passenger reappeared and a steward directed him down the aisle to take his seat just as the plane hit the Heathrow runway.
The experience reinforced for me the reality of terror in the sky. Sitting in an aircraft, 37,000ft over the Atlantic, there is nowhere to go, no escape and, confronted by passengers behaving suspiciously, a total sense of helplessness.
The nonchalant manner with which the male passenger was allowed to walk through the plane and enter the toilet during the landing approach, and to remain out of sight and control for around five minutes, was simply incredible and extraordinarily alarming.
Afterwards, I complained to the United Airlines desk. I was informed that an armed air marshal was probably on board the flight, as is most likely the case on high-risk routes between the United States and the UK.
However, I wondered what difference the marshal's presence would have made had the passenger beside me turned out to be a suicide-bomber. Would he - could he - have shot the suspect through the toilet door and saved our lives?
I note that President Obama had provided funds for the swift introduction of full-body scanners at American airports.
The only assurance for today's apprehensive air travellers must be that everyone is searched and screened to the nth degree. That cannot be achieved without total body scanning.
My journey on board that United Airlines Boeing leads me to hope that the sooner these scanners are introduced everywhere - including Northern Ireland - the safer it will be for everyone.
Ed Curran’s column appears in Monday’s Belfast Telegraph