London tube, July 7, 2005

While anti-terrorism procedures have already altered the way people travel, necessary responses to the alleged bomb-in-a-meat -grinder plot that led to arrests and raids in Sydney over the weekend may bring very significant long term changes to flying in Australia.

If for example, it becomes mandatory for domestic travellers to turn up at an airport two hours before the departure of a flight that is often between 50 minutes to 90 minutes long a net loss of another two to three hours out of the time it currently takes  to do a day trip to a meeting in Sydney from Melbourne might prove too big an ask for those who already have to be up at 4 am to be sure of getting to either city’s airport for a morning peak hour flight in time for a meeting or event that starts between 9-10 am.

This would be but one of the potential consequences of what may be demonstrably vital ‘improvements’ in airport security. The airlines are no doubt already acutely aware of this, and many other potential impacts.

It is difficult to image anyone thinking of going to Canberra or Sydney for the day from either city choosing to fly if four hours are going to be consumed by security requirements at the start and end of a trip that can usually be done door-to-door in three hours 30 minutes by car.

Nor does it ultimately matter how good an airport lounge may be if increased dwell time means no seats, no food, and too many people using the wi-fi at any one time. Lounges can be very good for at airport meetings, but would the airlines, or the airport owners, tolerate the costs of radically expanding them?  And not every business or government related trip can be fulfilled at a lounge anyhow.

Much can of course be done, no doubt at considerable cost, to improve security yet reduce the time taken, but anything that adds to the cost of delivering air travel will inevitably adversely impact demand. If we have learned anything from the last two decades, it is that air travel is price sensitive at both the corporate and discretionary private levels.

There is a broader concern for the securities authorities and police and response services to consider and it would be very surprising and alarming if they aren’t very much causing background concern already.

That concern is other forms of transport. Air travel seemed up until rail and bus atrocities like the July 5, 2005 attacks in London, to be the trophy target for transport terrorism attacks. But unfortunately surface transport, such as trains and ferries, are open to far worse atrocities, and this article, and for that matter, any discussion that might arise, isn’t going to outline attack scenarios for fear of imitation. Let’s just say the possibilities are appalling, and comprehensive, and airport-like processes to prevent them seem tenuous and fraught with uncertainties and improbable technical hurdles.

We’ve taken to air travel in a major way in this country. We may have to accept not only some very awkward security impositions upon it, but the dreadful vulnerability of rail, tunnels, stations, buses and bus stops, and so forth. It often seems remarkable how resilient other societies have proven in the face of terrorism, but then horrors of World War II, the insane actions of Bader Meinhof and the modern Irish ‘troubles’ and the determination of New Yorkers to continue with as ‘normal’ a life as possible in the months after 9/11 seem to have been welded into a collective culture of strength and defiance in the face of evil.

Our turn to say ‘they shall not prevail’ may be closer than we would have thought last week.

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