The monster

Public domain image of an explosive device.

Public domain image of an explosive device. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

There was something bestial about it. As the man pulled down the switch, the machine shuddered and groaned whilst emitting an unholy noise. Although the switch was electrical in nature, the cacophony suggested something much more primal. Internal combustion maybe, or perhaps steam.

Either way, there was an enormous deafening construction in front of me. I never would have thought such a thing would have existed under a modern office block and yet, down here in the bowels of the building, it lived.

As well as being noisy, the room was dark and dusty. The sign on the side of the machine declared it a bomb scanner. My companion looked bored. I helped him load the heavy mailbags onto the conveyer belt so that they could be ingested by the gigantic machine. I felt so important. Here I was, heroically scanning the incoming mail for terrorist devices, risking my life to make sure that the employees of BP Oil (UK) Ltd were safe.

“Have you ever found anything?” I shouted expectantly above the incessant roar of the machine. He fixed me with a look and slowly shook his head. His movements suggested that this was a well trodden path. He told me that any modern bomb would be set off by the scanner anyway. My shoulders involuntarily sank.

So what was the point? There was probably a risk analysis somewhere that said that our company might be a target for terrorism. In the mitigation column, it would say that the incoming post would be scanned before delivery. Everyone could relax, safe in the knowledge that we had all bases covered. Except, as my grisly colleague pointed out, the terrorists were smarter than that.

It’s difficult to find reliable statistics, but several sites seem to suggest that there are roughly 3Bn air passenger journeys per year. Every one of these passengers will spend roughly half an hour of their life passing through security. All of them will have to separate out their liquids and many of them will need to take off their shoes. Not because of our advanced x-ray scanning machines, but because in the past terrorists have been foiled attempted to blow up planes using either liquid explosive or the contents of their shoes.

I’m glad these guys were caught, but we left it a bit late. I look forward to the day when the machines at the airport are so sophisticated, that you don’t even notice them. They just happen to scan you when you’re least expecting it. Maybe while you get out of the taxi or as you walk past the newsagents buying your reading material for the flight. They’re probably not even looking for bombs. They will examine behaviour, looking for anything remotely out of the ordinary.

Surely that must be more effective than lining everyone up and marching them through the obvious (and not particularly effective) bomb scanner.

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Being left in the dark

Swiss A330-200 HB-IQH in Geneva International ...

Swiss A330-200 HB-IQH in Geneva International Airport. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

No-one likes being left in the dark, particularly when they’re travelling. I’ve been there and it was no fun. I was due to fly out of Geneva airport on the 9:15 Swiss Air flight to London Heathrow. When I arrived at the airport, the information board had an entry against my flight saying “More information 9PM”. Plainly, my flight was delayed, because at 9PM, I would have expected to be on the aircraft rather than waiting for information. There was a large booth in Geneva airport proudly displaying a sign saying “Information”, so I thought I would ask about my flight. The polite lady behind the desk could not give me any information, but she gave me a drinks voucher and said that an announcement would be made at 9PM.

At the designated hour, an announcement duly came telling us that the aeroplane that we were going to fly with had developed a fuel leak. Another aircraft was flying in to take us to London Heathrow and our new flight time was 11:05PM. At almost exactly the same time, every bar, restaurant, café, shop, kiosk in Geneva airport closed for the night, their work seemingly done. I sat down and started reading my book. There is a certain irony in reading “Around the World in 80 days” whilst stuck in Geneva airport.

Our flight was called and we boarded. The Captain came over the tannoy and assured us that all was well and we were just waiting for the last of our paperwork and we would be on our way. Time ticked by and more time ticked by. I was in danger of finishing my book. The Captain came back on to the tannoy and told us that there was a problem with the door and an engineer was on the way. Alas, the engineer tried, and failed to fix the broken door. The captain addressed us again, only this time he had come out of the cabin to do so in person – never a good sign.

Geneva

Geneva (Photo credit: Alan M Hughes)

“Ladies and Gentlemen, I have a very strange announcement to make, and a very strange request. The strange announcement is that there is still a problem with this aircraft door and it must be considered out of service. We have consulted the legal articles and we are still allowed to fly, but with a reduced number of passengers. Therefore, could I have 47 volunteers to disembark the aircraft and spend the night in Geneva so that the remaining 90 people can fly to London Heathrow this evening.”

The effect of this announcement was a stunned silence while the message sank in, and then a crowd of people surged up to the front all with questions for the captain.

Would we get a hotel room? Would we get a flight tomorrow? Would we get any compensation? How long did we have to get 47 people off the aircraft? All fairly obvious questions that could have easily been anticipated and answered up front, had anyone thought about it. The chaos continued with some people getting off, some people standing up to stretch their legs, some standing up to complain, some standing up to move their hand luggage to somewhere more convenient. The stewardesses were in among the throng trying to count and recount the passengers to see whether enough have disembarked. Meanwhile you could hear people in the hold crashing around trying to find bags that had to be unloaded.

Eventually, the Captain came back on to say that the airport was shutting and our flight was now cancelled. Amidst a lot of moaning and groaning, everyone got their bags and filed off the plane.

There was no-one to direct us or tell us where to go, so where do you go? There was a big queue of people at the gate where we boarded, so I headed for there, assuming that was where I needed to go. It became clear after a while that the big queue of people was queuing up to be told that we were in the wrong place and we should go to the information desk in the main terminal. They had a tannoy at the gate, why didn’t someone at the gate have the presence of mind to use it and tell everyone at once where to go?

When we got to the information desk, it was another queue. When you got to the front of this queue, you were given a voucher for a hotel room. Everyone had the same questions; How do I get to the hotel? How do I get back again, Which flight will I get in the morning? Is there any food anywhere? Everyone queued up to ask these questions. Why didn’t someone have the gumption to announce to the crowd what was going to happen? The queue would have been more orderly, would have moved quicker and everyone would have got to bed a little earlier.

The thread that runs through this story is a lack of information. If you look at what people do when they need information but are not getting it – they panic, they get upset, confused, rumours start. In the absence of anything concrete, rumours get believed and twisted and built upon. Kill off the panic and rumourmongering. Tell people what they need to know.