It’s just past midday at Gatwick on 10 August and calm chaos would be an apt oxymoron to describe the mood at Gatwick’s South Terminal. As I drive in from the M23, it’s eerily quiet – few cars and an easy drive into the short-term car park. Apart from the parked police van and the guy handing out forms detailing the new security measures, there are no signs that anything is amiss. Walk over the footbridge into the terminal, however, and it’s a very different story.
The queues for check-in snake from the terminal itself, across the 100m walkway over the railway line and down the zig-zag ramp to ground level, and then across to the bus station on the other side of the road. Most of the travellers at this time of the day at the South Terminal are families going on holiday, and most people appear resigned to their fate. “What right have they to disrupt our day like this,” complains one elderly woman in the queue, searching for the right description of those ultimately responsible: “….those hooligans.” But amazingly no one seems to be fuming or having a tantrum. Everywhere, airport and airline employees are breezily busy, advising travellers, handing out the see-through plastic bags for carry-on items and generally herding the crowds. I overhear one mentioning that he hasn’t had a break yet, but no one appears stressed-out.
Around the EasyJet check-in area is a teeming mass of would-be travellers. Any impression of a queue – even for queue-hardened Britons – has disappeared. An EasyJet employee stands on the desk with a loud-hailer, announcing flights still leaving (the carrier – the biggest user at the terminal has since cancelled all today’s flights from its three London airports). The departure screens show about half the flights cancelled…others are leaving three, four or five hours late.
The main chaos is at check-in. The security queue itself is not much worse than normal by this time of day. Although people are being rigorously searched, the absense of carry-on bags is probably speeding up the process.
Over in the North Terminal, British Airways’ base, the scene is slightly more ordered. There are proper queues at the check in desks, but a harassed BA employee is imploring passengers whose flights have been cancelled to go home. A sign warns that flights cannot be rebooked for 48 hours.
The blitz spirit is a cliche, but people do seem to be taking it without a fuss. Airline and air traffic controller strikes have caused chaos before. London’s airports have been hit several times by major security alerts. What is more impressive is that the emergency plan appears to be working. There are no headless chickens. Everyone knows what they are doing and there are plenty of staff about. Unlike previous alerts, where tanks rolled up at Heathrow without any real explanation beyond a vague serious security threat warning, people realise that what the police have foiled is a proper 9/11-style plot. As the five year anniversary of that horrific day approaches, people know that this sort of thing is the price we have to pay, occasionally, for airborne security.