In what travellers will look back upon fondly as the golden year of 2019, my final air journey was from Sharm el Sheikh via Istanbul to London with the excellent Turkish airline, Pegasus.
It was certainly the journey on which I endured the highest number of searches. In 2015, a Metrojet passenger plane en route to St Petersburg crashed shortly after take-off from the Egyptian resort with the loss of 224 lives. The presumption is that a bomb was placed on board in Sharm el Sheikh, and as a result the UK banned flights to and from the airport for the following four years.
As I wrote at the time, checks began at the road entrance to the airport from the highway, with dogs sniffing my baggage.
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Twice the details from my passport were diligently inscribed in a ledger. My laptop was laboriously swabbed for traces of explosives, twice, and I went through two full-body pat-downs, within sight of each other.
In an age of social distancing, it will be interesting to see how Sharm el Sheikh airport changes its approach to security.
But allow me to focus on what happened next, on touchdown at Sabiha Gokcen airport (the city’s Gatwick to Istanbul’s shiny new airport, the equivalent of Heathrow): the exact opposite of social distancing.
Several planes had arrived almost at once, and about 1,000 of us packed into to a tiny security search area. Groundhog day for we arrivals from Sharm el Sheikh.
According to a roadmap from the International Air Transport Association (IATA), that second search should become unnecessary.
The airline body urges: “Access to the terminal building should be restricted to airport/airline workers and travellers.” That makes sense from the point of view of both biosecurity and old-fashioned aviation security. But it will not play well with “meeters and greeters”, and on departure the “weepers and wailers”, nor with the catering outlets that depend upon them.
But a less-crowded airport environment is a definite plus for the passenger.
At the departure airport, IATA foresees several layers of protective measures:
“Boarding should be made as efficient as possible with redesigned gate areas, congestion-reducing boarding priorities, and hand luggage limitations.” With the possible exception of those of us who shun checked baggage, that looks good.
On board, the main concern is that the airline should be able to see all the seats.
“Social distancing on board (leaving the middle seat open) is obviated by the wearing of face coverings by all on board on top of transmission reducing characteristics of the cabin: everybody is front facing, air flow is from ceiling to floor, seats provide a barrier to forward/aft transmission, and air filtration systems that operate to hospital operating theatre standards. And Ryanair’s “ask before you go to the bathroom” approach receives the IATA seal of approval: Reduced congregation of passengers in the cabin, for example, by prohibiting queues for washrooms.
On arrival, some parts of the roadmap take on the hue of a wish list: “Accelerated processing and baggage reclaim to enable social distancing by reducing congestion and queuing.” All travellers would enjoy that prospect in the sunlit uplands of future travel: your bag waiting eagerly as you stroll up to baggage reclaim. But I don’t believe that any ground handler is deliberately slouching, and without massive investment in people and equipment I can’t see much room for improvement.
One aspect of changing planes can be achieved to the benefit of passengers: mutual recognition of security. If you fly from Edinburgh to London and connect to Chicago, you will be deemed at Heathrow airport to be “clean” and need not suffer the indignities of security once again.
The same applies in the US when you have been screened once by the Transportation Safety Administration: at subsequent connection points, you swerve security. If nations are confident in each other’s standards, it makes good sense to subtract the intermediate security step – saving time, stress and an avoidable airport pinch point.
But at a time when nations seem more disunited than ever, it remains to be seen if the aviation world can agree on this simple step.
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