Brexit US Aviation: What is the Impact?

  Editor's Note: Although the publishing hiatus was planned for July and August, we simply could not resist writing a post on Brexit, so now the break will be in August and September. This time off publishing will be used to improve the website, launch a new airport service and relax a bit. We will be back in October with a new post. Until then!

I was originally scheduled to write a follow up to an earlier post on the increasing challenges airports are facing in attracting and retaining talent. This is an important issue, and it is the subject that is likely to occupy much of an airport executive's time and thoughts when he or she has a few moments and can think about almost anything (I always say that the best clue to what is important to you is what you think about when you can think about anything at all). And I know from experience that the search for talent is a subject very likely to be discussed when airport executives are having a drink together. But given the recent Brexit vote, and the Istanbul attack, I decided the talent piece could wait until after the summer.

Brexit Through American Eyes

The Brexit vote was barely a couple of weeks ago as I write this, and already a good deal of ink has been spilled by people writing about it (and given the backstabbing in the British Parliament, a good deal of figurative political blood as well). What I would like to do is to talk about it from the perspective of an American; and an American who has spent a great deal of time in, and dealing with, the EU and one who works in aviation.

What you first must understand about the reaction in the US to Brexit is this: It is about us. Here in America, it is always about us. While some of us (myself very much included) care deeply about what happens politically and economically in Europe and in Britain, the overwhelming majority of Americans want to know how it will impact them. The rest is just academic, elitist, detail (and in our newly populist politics, academics and elites are not very popular here, just as they have proven not to be in Britain).

So, when Donald Trump said that the falling British pound was a good thing because it would bring more people to his golf course, most Americans just shrugged their shoulders. He was looking at it the same way they were. Most Americans don't own a golf course, but those who might want to travel spent a lot of time looking at exchange rates and air fares.

Yes, the US stock market took a big hit the first couple of days. Ironically, the financial second quarter ended on June 30th and the quarterly retirement statements we get from our retirement accounts might have gotten some attention if they took a hit. This is where Brexit might have become real to us in a personal way. But the pre-Brexit stock market rally (when most people thought Brexit would fail), and the rally since have the market about where it was when this all started. So, people have started getting their statements and there was no negative impact in them. If three hundred million people shrugging their shoulders could make a noise, that's what you would hear. But shoulder shrugging is a silent activity, and there will be no noise. Indeed, those (like Trump) who thought Brexit was a good thing might even use this as evidence that post-Brexit economic fears are overblown. Your vacation is cheaper, your retirement account is fine. Nothing to see here. Move along.

Brexit and the Presidential Race

On the political side, again remembering that to most Americans it's all about us, Brexit is a sort of Rohrsbach Test. What you see and think largely depends on your predilections before the vote. If you love Donald Trump then it just shows that the elites and politicians are driving our countries into the ground and we need massive change and we need to "take our country back."  If you love Hillary Clinton, you see it as more evidence that the world is an uncertain place and we need a steady hand at the tiller.

Another thing to look for going forward, though, is the extent to which Brexit leads to distasteful outcomes, whether economic, social or political. If it leads to economic distress and social meltdown; resulting in polls showing a lot of buyers remorse, it could persuade enough independent American voters who wanted to vote Trump to send a message, figuring he could never actually win, to reconsider that choice. As Eugene Robinson said in a Washington Post column recently, "catharsis is not a plan." Absent that, though, Brexit is likely to only reinforce whatever views and leanings Americans already had going in.

Oftentimes "off year" elections (such as those for Members of the European Parliament), are used as protest votes, resulting in unusual outcomes but minimal actual consequences. I wonder if the Brexit vote was such an occasion. Except this time consequences are real. I wonder if that may be a cautionary note for some who want to vote Trump seeking to send a message.

Everyone Hates Trade

Indeed, the major loser in the US presidential contest so far is not any one candidate, but the whole idea that international trade and commerce is a good thing. Candidates are racing to the fringes on this issue over here, and the Brexit vote and resulting rhetoric will do nothing to stop that. It is lousy economics, but right now it is good politics to be against trade and international commerce.

Everyone Loves Political Intrigue

One further thought on how Americans are viewing this: The betrayal, if that's what it is, of Boris Johnson by Michael Gove only adds to the enjoyment for Americans. For those who think Britain is all about Downton Abbey, this House of Cards element is quite juicy indeed. It may even elevate the reputation of Britain around here. 

There are some of us, though, who are a bit more thoughtful about this. The Brexit vote leaves me very concerned about the future of Britain. There is a lot of focus on what Scotland might do, rightly so. Perhaps a more interesting question lies in Ireland. Once this is implemented, that is where Britain's only land border with the EU will be located. As border control seems a major motivating factor in the Brexit vote (and seems a major motivating factor in Michael Gove deciding to throw Boris Johnson under the bus) it is hard to imagine that big changes will not be coming in Ireland. I greatly fear for the roll back of progress that has been made there over the years.

Demography is Destiny

If you had told me 30 years ago that Britain would take this vote and that there would be a major disagreement between young and old on the outcome, I would have guessed the split would be exactly the opposite of what occurred. Given the success of the EU in transforming a war torn continent, and the memories my contemporaries and those older would have of the post-war years, I would have guessed they'd vote to stay, while younger people who may take their freedoms to work and travel for granted, might vote to leave. That, in the end, it was exactly the opposite, is an interesting subplot. Those who opposed the outcome the strongest have to live with it the longest. (yeah and only 30% of the young voted!)

US - British - European Engagement

This vote should call into question the wisdom of those who think NATO has outlived its usefulness. Even those in the "Leave" camp said that NATO keeps Britain and the US tied together with Europe in the most meaningful way. I would guess Hillary Clinton will try to point this out to Donald Trump (who has called NATO outdated and said the US should reduce or even end its involvement); but I don't think most people will care.

On the aviation side of things, I know the US State Department had a meeting with key stakeholders the day after the vote to talk about what might happen from here. Will Britain have to revert to Bermuda II? Can Britain be covered by the EU agreement, or some hybrid? ACI Europe has called for the internal aviation market to continue to include Britain. Several airline leaders have said the same. Indeed, airline CEOs were among the most prominent "Remain" supporters. In the end, Britain will leave the EU, but it is hard to believe the aviation landscape will be allowed to change much. But then again, a lot of things have happened this year that are hard to believe.

Many of the European low cost carriers are reassessing their plans, and even the countries in which they hold operating certificates, after the vote. For Americans this will become very interesting since many use those airlines (Easyjet, RyanAir, Vueling etc) to get around Europe on their holidays.

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I recall a conversation with a friend who works for the EU commission. I said to him that it took the US two centuries to go from a country with a barebones Constitution to one that started regulating what can go into certain foods if they were going to be called certain things. Europe was attempting to do this in a few decades. I wondered if Europe was moving too fast; especially since Europe does a poor job of explaining itself to people and getting their buy-in. My concerns were dismissed by my friend, but I do think this is a lesson.  

In a more recent discussion, I was speaking with an American friend who is much more conservative than I am. He was reading into the Brexit vote what he wanted to see, that it is a vote against elites and a vote to take their country back. To him, the EU was a faceless mass of regulations. I pointed out to him the role the EU has played in changing the political face of Europe. That in the decade before they joined, Greece, Spain and Portugal had all been dictatorships, and obviously the Eastern European members were part of the Soviet bloc (to me, this is the EU's greatest achievement). He hadn't even stopped to consider any of this; may not even have been aware.

The Brexit vote is a story of self-inflicted wounds. Cameron's disastrous decisions. The EU's reluctance to better explain itself. The untruths and distortions during the campaign on all sides. But this American thinks those wounds will have ramifications for years to come, that it is not all about whether my upcoming trip will be cheaper, that the achievements of the past are never assured, and that the future looks a bit murkier than it did a couple of weeks ago.


I can't sign off without at least mentioning the Istanbul attacks. I have previously written on security twice in this space and have always stated that attempts to ensure some kind of perfect security were a fools errand that would only mislead the public.

In my aviation security post and aviation security update I have made the point that many of the steps we take to provide "more" security are counter-productive and will only serve to provide terrorists with new and even richer targets of opportunity. In other pages, I have also criticized the media for hyping the fear we are all supposed to feel, and for feeding a sense that someone should be able to provide perfect security every day. Every now and then I get criticized for these points.  Especially after an attack.

But there is no perfect security. Everything we do to improve, the terrorists study and try to beat. That will go on forever. Now, some people want to move the security perimeter further away. All this does is move potential targets around, indeed by creating new bottlenecks in harder to secure areas, it actually creates softer targets.

One of the most frustrating moments in the post-Istanbul coverage in the US was hearing a CNN anchor express surprise that the Istanbul airport was open the day after the attack. How could they be so....resilient?! I saw a tweet from a local reporter in Washington that included a picture of an empty Turkish Airlines ticket counter the next morning. The tweet noted the Istanbul airport is open but the ticket counter is empty. It did not note that the one daily flight from Washington to Istanbul wouldn't leave for 12 hours and that's why the ticket counter was empty.

One of the best American commentators on homeland security is a woman named Juliette Kayyem. She is the author of a new book called Security Mom, and is a welcome presence on CNN, where she provides commentary. She is a welcome antidote to the voices of so many who insist we can have perfect security and must find blame when we don't. Her message is that there is no such thing as perfect security (unless we want to become North Korea or unless we just stay home, in which case incidents of bathtub falls and accidental gunshot wounds would likely spike anyway). That we must allow for our freedom and for our country to function, while providing the best security we can. And that when something happens, we must learn from it and keep improving.

That's the true lesson from Istanbul and Brussels. Learn what happened. Get better. Stay vigilant. Ensure intelligence is of the highest order. But maintain our freedom. Resolve to be resilient. Keep moving forward. And remember that terrorism doesn't truly work if we don't provide the "terror" in response to these ghastly acts.

Just prior to publication Theresa May has been selected as Prime Minister and she has appointed Boris Johnson as Foreign Minister. Some Americans will look for evidence in the Prime Minister's ascension that might auger well for Hillary Clinton. They appear from various news accounts to have a fair amount in common. More likely though, many Americans will think it's almost as if Hillary Clinton appointed Donald Trump Secretary of State! For me, frankly, it looks as if Britain has become fortunate with this choice. A steady hand is required and the new Prime Minister appears to offer just that.


Aviation Security: An Update

  When I wrote the aviation security post last year I had several people suggest to me that I was maybe a bit too glib - too willing to take risks. Some suggested I may not have learned enough from past terrorist attacks.

In the wake of the Paris attacks, the San Bernardino, California attacks, attacks in Turkey and elsewhere I am guessing some of the same people may wonder if I would like to take back anything I said in the original piece.

I'm sorry to disappoint, but if anything I believe the past year has only gone to further prove my point.

I never said that we should not do all we can to find terrorists, uncover their plots and stop them. We should absolutely do that.  But we should be smart about it, and we should resist the temptation to take steps that would get press attention or satisfy some urge, but would do nothing to make us safe. I also ended the article by saying that our fear, and the associated rhetoric, is the oxygen upon which the terrorists depend; and I expressed the hope that we would deprive them of that oxygen and not allow the terrorists to breathe.

Right now, I think, the terrorists are having no trouble catching their breath. Certainly in the United States, the images and rhetoric are full of fear, and of "ideas" that would not make us safer. Some want to get rid of visa waiver and various trusted traveler programs that in reality allow us to focus on the most dangerous people and waste precious little time on folks that do not need our attention. Indeed, these programs provide us better information on travelers, and in the case of visa waiver, allow better information sharing between and among countries. Getting rid of such initiatives does not make us safer.

And then of course there are proposals such as that about banning Muslims from even entering the country. It is "ideas" such as this that provide ISIS not just with oxygen but with a massive shot of adrenaline.

I said that we have lost the ability to avoid being terrorized by every incident. That is not to say that people should not be concerned or anxious.  Indeed, a major mistake President Obama has made has been not doing enough to understand that anxiety. In this, he could use a bit of Bill Clinton empathy.

But that is different than being, and remaining, terrorized. Two deranged idiots killed 14 people at a holiday party and posted a message saying they pledged their allegiance to ISIS. This is the kind of thing that should concern counterterrorism officials, and the kind of thing that presents a major challenge. But, as President Obama said in his State of the Union address, it is not an existential threat and it does not mean that ISIS is "on the move." And it should not lead to rhetoric or actions that will actually make us less safe, and will give the terrorists that oxygen they crave.

Many of the things I said a year ago I was concerned about have come to pass in the United States, and our presidential election has served to magnify them. We are, in many ways, less safe than we were then. Not because of what happened in Paris or San Bernardino. But because of the way we might be reacting to those, and other, incidents.

So, let's keep in place programs that work. Let's avoid rhetoric or actions that allow the terrorists to say to those they are trying to convert that we are acting just as they say we will act. Let's surprise them. And then let's suffocate them.

These are difficult and controversial issues, worthy of discussion and debate. Please let me know your thoughts. I look forward to discussing them with you.


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Aviation Security: Why I Will Be Scared This Year

  Catchy title?

Yes, I am more afraid in 2015 than I have been in years.  But afraid of what?  Am I afraid of ISIS/ISIL?  AQAP?  Al Shabaab?  Al Qaeda?  Al Nusra?  Lone wolf terrorists?

No.  Not afraid of any of them. That does not mean I do not consider them dangerous, they are. That does not mean I do not consider them evil, they are. That does not mean that I think we ought to ease up on any of them, we should not.

What I fear is this:  In America, certainly, and in many other places too, we have developed a level of obsession with terrorism that can spawn (and is spawning) an overreaction.  Our media is obsessed.  Many of our political leaders are obsessed (and often attack others who are less obsessed).  And our people are obsessed.

Several writers over the years have said that terrorism only works if we allow ourselves to become, and act, terrorized.  Once we do that, we are giving the terrorists exactly what they want.  Well, in America and elsewhere, that has long since happened.  Even as all those groups I listed above have faced setbacks and had leaders killed, they are succeeding in the only thing that really matters:  terrorizing people.  Even when they fail, as they do far more often than not, they succeed in scaring us.

It seems one can’t go more than two days without some sort of CNN “Breaking News” item saying, essentially, that bad guys still want to attack aviation.  I don’t know about you, but I doubt we will see any Breaking News stories about terrorists retiring to the Riviera.  Of course they still want to attack aviation.  That will never end, will never go away.

I am amazed at how many interviews I have seen regarding the topic of whether ISIS is going to attack in the United States.  (And I saw another within two hours of typing that sentence).  They are clearly hoping to inspire someone here to do something awful, much as Anwar Al Awlaki did.  I am sure they aspire to attack the homeland themselves.  Heck, they aspire to a global caliphate, so of course they’d kinda like to attack here.

So every time an interview like that airs, usually right after some mention of the barbarous nature of ISIS, we are immediately tempted to believe we are in imminent personal danger of a similar fate.  Then we have public officials, or former public officials, willing to go on television and say we are not as safe as we can and should be.  And, in the absence of any contrary narrative, the fear level increases.

In and of itself, this wouldn't be so bad.  But added to that, we have the intense coverage of every security “breach”, whether some kid who wandered through a hole in a fence or even an old lady who likes to try to stow away (both real life examples).  The inevitable result is indignant public officials and “experts” talking about how unsafe the aviation system is, and then proposing all sorts of ideas designed to make it “safer.”

In the United States recently, some idiots who work at the airport were found smuggling firearms on a flight from Atlanta to New York.  This, naturally, led to congressional hearings and calls for all sorts of “security measures” that would actually make us less safe, rather than more.  (What amuses me about this particular story more than anything is the fact that moving firearms this way is probably the riskiest method from the point of view of the smuggler.  If they put them in a truck, or on a bus they would have had a far better chance of success.  Getting caught, eventually, doing it the way they did it is almost guaranteed).

For years, when I was President of Airports Council International – North America, my members and I called for more of a risk-based approach to security.  Rather than treating everyone and everything as a potential threat, let’s try to narrow it down and focus more on those people and things that might actually pose a problem.  The challenge always was the fact that all the political pressure goes in the other direction.  There is no real political or public pressure for what some would see, or define, as “less security” or “doing” less – even when the result is a MORE secure system.  Moves that seemed to make perfect sense to us were resisted because of this countervailing political pressure.

Luckily, though, for the aviation system and for travelers everywhere, we had leadership at the Transportation Security Administration and Department of Homeland Security that was willing to move in this direction.  The resulting initiatives, such as PreCheck, Global Entry and Automated Passport Control, have been a great success in facilitating legitimate travel while focusing resources where they are most needed.

Another example of such an effort predates all of those:  the U.S. Visa Waiver program.  Visitors from certain countries, including many NATO allies, can come to the United States without a visa, though they need to provide certain information about themselves so they can be checked.  With documented cases of Canadians and Western Europeans and others traveling to Syria to fight with ISIS, there are growing calls to reconsider this initiative.  And I am concerned that those calls will extend to the very popular and effective programs mentioned in the preceding paragraph.

That is what scares me.  If we back away from these kinds of initiatives we will not only restrict travel but we will create logjams at and near airports that will provide target rich environments for anyone with a gun for a crude explosive device.

I fear that we in the United States are about to take a step back from what makes sense, and what has largely worked, in order to react (overreact) to sensational stories.  I fear it will happen, because it is happening.  And lest you think this is just an American story, remember that in the security realm almost everything we do here gets exported in some way, if only because other gateways want to preserve their access to the U.S. market.

So, yes, I am very afraid.  I am afraid that we have lost the ability to avoid being terrorized by every incident.  I am afraid we will be unable to resist calls for “more security” that will in the end make us less safe and make far less efficient use of scarce resources.  I am afraid that we will make some really bad choices this year, choices that will be exported around the world.  I am afraid our media and our public leaders have lost the ability to tell what should truly be breaking news and what should be a threat calling for new measures and new policies, and what should not.

One of my closest friends in the airport world, Olivier Jankovec, Director General of ACI Europe, once said that if we wait till the bad guys get to the airport to try to catch them it is likely too late.  The real hard work happens far from the front door of the airport, it happens in intelligence agencies around the world whose agents risk life and limb to get good information and then share it.  We can cripple an airport operationally by intrusive procedures, we can travel scared of something that is far less likely to happen to any of us than is winning an Olympic medal or even being struck by lightning.

When we do those things, ISIS, AQAP, Al Shabaab, Al Nusra, Al Qaeda and potential lone wolves everywhere smile and become energized.  Our fear, and the fear mongering we often see on television and hear from too many public leaders, is the oxygen that sustains them.

Let’s refuse to let them breathe.