Lessons from 9/11

Aviation had to reinvent itself after terrorists attacked the World Trade Center in 2001. Covid-19 is a different kind of change agent but many of the fundamental challenges it creates are the same

“Tuesday 11th September 2001 changed the lives of many of us. It was one of those days people remember to this day what they did. At 8.46 eastern daylight time American Airlines flight AA 11 crashed into the northern tower of the World Trade Center. What ensued was one of the biggest terror attacks that changed the way aviation functioned henceforth. What became obvious from the beginning was a new perception of how security should work in the future. Subjective feelings towards security changed and objective rules and regulations to adapt security procedures to this new reality were introduced. From the very beginning all stakeholders were scratching their heads and were asking themselves: ‘Who should pay for all this?’. New procedures meant additional staff, new equipment and technology, longer dwell times for passengers, new rules and regulations for hold-baggage and cabin baggage and so on. But it was obvious from the beginning that something had to be done to fight the threat of global terror and to ensure an environment that brings confidence to the passengers signalling that travelling on aircraft is safe. Fast forward to 2020 and we are again facing a situation that many term a new reality that was triggered by a tiny virus spread all over the planet. In contrast to 9/11, this time it is not a single event that triggered the necessity to re-think everything we do. Although it is of course problematic to compare global terror with a pandemic, it is interesting that the consequences could be similar. Aviation is now faced with an existential threat. Its financial foundations and its economics have come under unprecedented strain. Without support from governments the whole sector runs the risk of bankruptcy. So, answers must be found quickly. But this time obvious differences in the comparison of the Covid-19 pandemic with 9/11 arise. Whereas in 2001 governments acted quickly to introduce new common rules (and many of the experts agree that some of the rules were misguided) to tackle the problem and restore confidence in the security of aviation, this time it seems that decision makers are paralysed. Rules are patchy, not standardised and differ country-by-country. Although ICAO, IATA, EASA or ACI try to inform their stakeholders as best as they can, most of the information comes as suggestions, recommendations or best practices proposals. The degree of compulsion is very low. And this is felt by the passengers. Reports of travellers that are surprised and often disappointed by the negligence of the checks and the non-compliant execution of procedures increase. Social distancing is ignored, in front of check-in counters or at boarding gates long queues show that many people have not yet fully taken the new rules to their hearts. Interestingly ground staff are very reluctant to enforce the recommendations and rules. It is eye-catching that there is no abundance of resources. Although traffic figures are terribly low, all companies seem to be very successful in trimming staff accordingly. With often just minimum staffing it is no surprise that queues unfold at check-in desks, security lanes or boarding gates. From a purely commercial perspective this is understandable. But it does not help in giving
travellers a good feeling when deciding to fly. Most people I spoke to were outright disappointed by this kind of travel experience. Their summary is simple and staggering. ‘We did not feel safe. The overall experience was disappointing. Staff was unsure how and what to enforce.’ It is tempting to try to save on every aspect of the logistics chain in aviation. But we will end up in a situation that leaves our most valued asset – the trust of our passengers – devalued. So we should and must invest in those areas that are of importance to the traveller, be it staff, more equipment (eg more buses at the apron), more credible and effective disinfection, more sanitizer, clever catering solutions, better, quicker and cheaper health checks and so on. But who should pay for all this? Who is the addressee to foot the bill? After 9/11 the immediate reaction of all stakeholders was to point the finger to the other participants. Clever papers were written and consultants employed to argue that it was certainly not the airlines or the airports that should pay. The ground handling community was luckily spared. There was soon mutual understanding that governments should foot the bill. But as budgets have always been strained, governments were unwilling to write cheques. At the end of the day it was the passenger who paid for the enhanced security. Looking back this was the right way to finance all the X-ray machines, security lanes and staff. In most countries, security tariffs are now part of the tax-box. It has become an integral part of ticket prices. Due to high number of passengers and payers the amount per ticket is reasonable. If we asked passengers, whether they are prepared to pay some Euros or Dollars to finance all the security services, the probable answer will be ‘Yes’. And, rightly so. There should be absolutely no compromise in security due to lack of funds. And as ticket prices have become cheaper every year the effect of security tariffs in the total expenditure of a journey was not felt. Now we talk about personal safety and the subjective feeling of passengers regarding their health. The similarities with the past are obvious. But, at the moment surprisingly there is no discussion about funding the extra cost of all the staff and things that are needed to provide a safe environment in aviation. Therefore, I raise my voice in demanding a discussion about the introduction of health tariffs, not only as a short-term measure, but as a source of funds for future challenges as regards passengers´ health and safety in aviation. Just consider a price tag of €3-€5 per departing passenger. With these tiny amounts added to each ticket enough staff could be earmarked to guarantee safe procedures, enough funds would be available to clean, disinfect, decontaminate terminals, aircraft and GSE thoroughly – thereby stopping many alibi actions that are more show than substance. If cost for these improvements are transparent and credible, passengers will be happy to contribute. And, aviation will be much better prepared for the challenges ahead. With that in place then the desire to fly will surely return, as it did after 9/11.”

Call Open contact page (no Javascript)