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Fear of flying in the age of security



No passion so effectually robs the mind of all its powers of acting and reasoning as fear.

— Edmund Burke

The campaign slogan of Tom Daschle, the Democrat leader in the U.S. Senate who last week suggested Canadian beef was unsafe and shouldn’t be allowed into his country, is "Only the paranoid survive." Daschle, like the Bush administration, is seeking re-election this year, if you hadn’t already guessed.

The old adage that it isn’t paranoia if they really are out to get you carries some weight in the U.S. since Sept. 11, 2001. But the leaders of the nation that celebrated the Christmas holidays by being on "code orange" alert for three weeks have gone too far. Airline travel, which was already the most inconvenient form of travel, became even more messed up over the holidays. And the consequences will continue to be felt everywhere, even now that code orange has been lowered to code yellow; even in our little corner of nirvana.

Most people heard the stories over the holidays about international airline flights being turned back from U.S. airspace because of improper passenger screening, about planes being delayed for hours while passenger lists were checked, and about airliners being escorted to the ground by military fighter jets. The U.S. has also demanded that foreign airlines put armed air marshals on certain flights when American authorities have suspicions about a flight or its passengers.

And according to a report in England’s Daily Telegraph, the U.S. Transportation Security Administration has notified all airlines that passengers should no longer be allowed to "congregate in groups" by toilets on flights into American airspace. The concern is that terrorists sitting in various rows in an airplane could rendezvous at the loo before hijacking the plane.

For too long the airline industry, like the beef industry, was left to look after safety and security on its own. We now know the consequences. But the pendulum has swung back hard to the right, not coincidentally in a year when Americans go to the polls. And it’s taking its toll in a number of ways.

A study by the Centre for Strategic and International Studies placed the cost of the stepped-up security for the code orange alert over the holidays at a billion dollars a week, according to the New York Times.

Airports, of course, weren’t the only places affected by code orange security measures.

Most foreigners entering the U.S. are now subject to fingerprinting and security checks. And a report out of London this week suggests fingerprints may eventually be required for anyone buying airline tickets online.

The Internet has revolutionized the airline business, Reuters reports, helping low-fare carriers cut costs and turning travellers into their own travel agents. But some experts say that for security reasons, more identification will be required from anyone purchasing airline tickets, and anything that complicates booking tickets will further damage the airline industry.

"If you start tampering with that, there’s a whole section of air travel that will fall by the wayside," William Gaillard, a spokesman for the airline trade association IATA told Reuters.

Most of this, so far, has to do with flights entering the United States, but that doesn’t mean Canada is or will remain unaffected. If some lunatic on a flight to Vancouver, for instance, decided to re-route a plane to Seattle the Space Needle wouldn’t be out of range. So American authorities may yet insist on air marshals on international flights into Canada.

Security, of course, is paramount. It certainly trumps any concerns a little ski resort in the Coast Mountains has about trying to win back destination visitors.

But there must be a balance between fear and freedom. When you go too far, concede too much freedom, you concede victory to your enemy.