Why the latest VX threat worries UK business travellers

Image copyright Getty Images Image caption Airlines say that the VX nerve agent may have been introduced by terrorists

A tightening of regulations to tackle a new bug in commercial aviation has riled business people who are worried it will cost them millions of pounds.

They say their assets are under greater risk because of rules announced last week.

Under the revised rules, a new virus may be introduced into commercial aircraft cargo hold during a stopover in a different country.

Britain first raised the alarm about the bug two years ago.

International airports are being told to enforce new measures.

Change of guard

That the situation may be more serious was reflected in a review of airline security by the head of airport operator BAA when he stepped down this month.

John Holland-Kaye, who left his job to become Transport Secretary, said he was concerned that passengers may one day be infected with an airborne virus – like Ebola – rather than simply have their luggage scuffed up in airport luggage racks.

Business travellers are concerned about the delay of getting their bags to their destinations.

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Businesswoman Baroness Chance is from Nigeria but regularly visits Britain for work. The ease of her movements on a UK Airways flight is crucial to her daily routine.

To make sure she can fly on the same aircraft to her destination as her friends, the 28-year-old has a sample of her cosmetics in a special pocket.

The UK Home Office says the flight and baggage have to be separated.

Image copyright Getty Images Image caption John Holland-Kaye was BAA boss when he had concerns about a new bug in aviation

Now, in a change to the current regulations, the department says the sanitising agent could be introduced by airport authorities if a suspicious passenger so happens to visit a stopover on his or her way to a destination.

And the more things change…

Predicting the next threat is the watchword in cybersecurity, especially as the world moves increasingly towards machine-to-machine communications.

But how realistic is it to assume that a new virus could be introduced accidentally by an employee on a commercial aircraft?

Without learning what the next virus could be, airlines say they are unable to prepare for it.

Image copyright Getty Images Image caption John Holland-Kaye, pictured last month, described the situation as ‘scary’ in his review of airline security

Debbie Gulledge, who runs business advisory group BGIS, says such a scenario is not so farfetched because of what many companies have learnt from recent cyberattacks.

She says: “It’s tempting to forget about the odd rogue employee and carry on as before. It’s scary that something so potentially dangerous hasn’t been addressed.

“They have to have emergency procedures to investigate any suspicious action on board the plane, but they can’t even do that until a passenger falls ill.

“I’d like to think there’s been no patient, but I know as well as anyone that this is quite possible.”

Some airports say they are also examining ways of tackling this scenario.

Each airport handles about 32 million bags a year and it is not clear if this is a threat to each individual duty free.

Flight disruptions

But as bad as it could be, it could mean the end of many carriers’ business.

Tony Freudell is the chief commercial officer of UK airline Flybe.

It has a relatively small fleet and would be the last in any queue, therefore it would be the last affected.

‘It makes your head spin’

“It makes your head spin,” Mr Freudell says.

“Someone has to realise that there’s too much risk in something like this to make a decision that will be detrimental to the industry.

“We’ll need to learn more about this, but at the moment, as far as I’m concerned, we’re here to take the lead and make sure passengers get on with their journeys.

“Customers have to trust that airlines that move to do the right thing are in position to do so.”

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