Mon, 10 Mar 2008

I'm not a terrorist, please let me travel

Please don't arrest me, I'm not a terrorist For the past two years or so I've been wearing a badge designed by Vivienne Westwood for the civil liberty organisation Liberty. On it is written in friendly letters ‘I am not a terrorist, please don't arrest me’. Liberty describes the writing as ‘a child-like scrawl plea’. It obviously works as I have not been arrested, or even stopped and searched, since I started wearing this badge.

The badge helps people realise that we must all adopt a rational attitude to the terrorist threats. We must promote measures that really do enhance our security and not security theatre measures that just inconvenience many innocents and do not make us any safer.

I have travelled abroad many times while wearing it. While waiting in security queues at airports I had the occasional positive response from fellow passengers. At Stansted Airport, early February, I had the first and so far only negative reaction to it. While I was waiting at the gate, by the counter, for an Easyjet flight to Copenhagen, a Swissport staff requested that I remove the badge which was pinned to my coat.

When I queried the staff why he was making such a request, he explained his motivation was that it might upset some passengers. I pointed out that the design of this badge is friendly and the message is non-threatening. I found his request upsetting and that his motivation was purely hypothetical as he hadn't heard from any concerned passenger. As he insisted, I complied with his request. This exchange was short and polite. At the bottom of the steps leading to the tarmac, he further discussed this incident with a colleague travelling with me adding that you have to be careful because some people are getting nervous about these things.

On board of the plane, my colleague opened The Times, and the headline on top of p.3, visible from several rows, was ‘Ryanair ordered to pay damages to steel band ‘terrorists’ thrown off jet’. Oh, the irony.

The Times - terrorist headline

As no passenger has ever complained about this badge and I don't believe requesting me to remove it increases our security, back in London I contacted the General Manager for Swissport at Stansted to query the regulations covering Swissport staff's authority in requesting passenger to remove badges and other items of clothing. He investigated the incident and was very diligent in responding:

As all communications from passengers and customers are important to us, we do investigate all complaints or comments fully, and by the nature of our business this can take longer than perhaps I might prefer.

I have now had the opportunity to investigate the circumstances surrounding a member of Swissport staff asking you to remove your badge before boarding a flight at Stansted Airport.

Our business as a major provider of airport ground handling services around the world, works hard with our customer airlines and operators at airports where we work, to ensure aviation continues to be a safe and secure method of transport. The aviation industry is rightly well regulated and all businesses co-operate with the Department for Transport and the police services and security staff at the airports to meet these regulations. Additionally, we try and ensure that passengers are spared additional anxiety that they may feel as a result of enhanced security processes at the airports.

The badge which I understand you were wearing bears the message "I am not a terrorist. Please don't arrest me." Whilst it is unlikely that anybody could take exception to such a friendly and, presumably well-intentioned sentiment, our concerns were that the word "terrorist" was clearly the most prominent and could be read from a distance, while the context in which it was used could not.

Our request for the badge to be removed while you were preparing to board the flight and during the flight itself, followed consultation with the airline on which you were travelling, in particular the Captain and senior cabin crew member. We did not intend to cause you offence or to demonstrate support or rejection of the objectives of Liberty, the cause which I gather the badge supports. It was merely to spare other passengers any potential anxiety through the prominence of the word "terrorist" in what many would consider a security sensitive area. As part of legislative requirements, all airport staff are now required to undergo a greater degree of security awareness training and one of the supporting strains of this is to recognize and to act upon the “out of the ordinary”.

I hope that this provides some explanation of the reason for the action of our member of staff and I trust that this explains why you were asked to remove the badge on this occasion.

It is reassuring that airport staff benefit from additional security awareness training. This is exactly the type of measure that increases our safety.

Unfortunately some of the explanations still left me confused. Neither my colleague nor I noticed the Swissport staff having radio communications with the Easyjet Captain. We may have missed that as even though we were right by the counter we weren't paying particular attention to this. However, during the request to remove my badge, there was no mention of any consultation with the Captain. Sparing potential anxiety is of course something I fully subscribe to, but how come the word ‘terrorists’ when more prominent on a newspaper has not the same potential to create anxiety in a security sensitive area? Security measures, if efficient, should be applied consistently. Why singling my badge out?

I sent a further email requesting clarifications. Here's the concluding email:

Thank you for your further correspondence, and my apologies for a tardy reply. I have been dealing with a large redundancy issue which as I hope you can appreciate is very time consuming.

Our dispatchers are responsible for ensuring the boarding process is safe and timely and, as such, liaise with a number of personnel during the time the aircraft is on the ground. It is likely you would not have been aware of all of these discussions, some of which will have been made by radio or telephone from our Operations office, and there was no need for the dispatcher to explain them to you at the time.

Whilst I can understand your frustration, I am satisfied that in the light of the circumstances on the day as they were explained to me, the dispatcher made the right decision in asking you to remove the badge in question. The dispatcher was the senior member of our staff on duty at the time and, as such, I support his decision and am grateful to you for complying with it.

I have not received the Swissport's regulations covering Swissport staff's authority in requesting passenger to remove badges and other items of clothing

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