Aldergrove in the 1970s: no hand baggage, no overnighting BA crews, no aerosols #20YearRule

In the summer of 1978, transport officials in the Department of the Environment were dealing with the effect of the Troubles on the airport that was formerly known as Aldergrove.

The terminal closed to non-passengers after a 1973 rocket attack on the airport’s fuel storage and a bomb explosion in the freight depot.

According to papers in the ENV/13/1/68A government file [selective scans] released under the 30/20 Year Rule, the reopening of the terminal building to non-passengers was opposed in 1977 by BA pilots and cabin crew, though that was not the position taken corporately by their publicly owned employer.

Security advisors suggested that “a possible maximum” of just three aircraft could be secured overnight on the apron at Aldergrove. A a British Midland plane regularly stayed along with its crew.

The BA pilots were unwilling to stay in Belfast overnight, so the Trident plane operating BA’s ‘Shuttle’ service “uplifted crews to Glasgow” after the last flight of the evening, costing BA around three quarters of a million pounds annually.

An approach was made to put the crews up in the RAF mess at Aldergrove. There were also offers to accommodate crews overnight in an area of the airport previously used for the preparation of flight meals, or in a house that NI Airports owned at Aldergrove.

On Tuesday 25 July 1978, the Belfast Telegraph leader summed up the crazy situation:

“Now the main cloud in the sky seems to be the continuance of the absurd business of flying an empty aircraft to Glasgow overnight. This nonsense ostensibly for the protection of the crew, does not apply to the other airline which operates on the London route. At a time when security at the airport is being relaxed, the annual waste of £700,000, now amounts to a public scandal.

“BA say this cost is not passed onto the passenger, but it still has to be borne out of the public purse. It is not just a matter of the crew refusing to stay overnight, as the Department of the Trade have apparently endorsed this advice. Should such an expensive precaution, deemed as unnecessary by a private airline [BMA/British Midland] be tolerable in the public sector?”

The threat of “sabotage of an aircraft in flight” was “assessed as relatively low … since a suicidal saboteur seems unlikely” so instead protection measures were focussed on baggage and freight.

Hand luggage was banned in July 1974 following “the discovery of a bomb on board an aircraft on a flight to Belfast”, leading to internal departmental correspondence to discuss how airport security staff could recognise government issue briefcases carrying secure government papers that could circumvent the ban.

Feedback suggested that the permanent vehicle checkpoint (PVCP) on the road into Aldergrove was putting travellers off using the airport and a proposal suggested that it should be replaced by mobile patrols along the “cul de sac of roads around the airport” and snap vehicle checkpoints.

However, the Security Forces (capital ‘S’, capital ‘F’) “strongly advised that the checkpoint should remain” as the Army did not considerable these alternative measures would be as effective in deterring attacks on the “particularly prestigious target”.

A plan to improve the appearance of the permanent vehicle checkpoint and enhance the effectiveness of its facilities was outlined. However, there was a risk that “opponents of the security measures around Aldergrove” (who had been “fairly quiet recently”) would interpret this new work as “indicating a degree of permanency not formerly associated with the checkpoint and road closures”.

[The word ‘permanent’ in ‘permanent vehicle checkpoint’ was clearly open to considerable interpretation!]

One gem in the middle of the file comes courtesy of the former Sunday Times journalist Chris Ryder. A frequent traveller through the airport, he wrote to NI Airports a number of times between 1976 and 1978. In one letter on headed notepaper he complained about the “unaccountable morons from Securicor” with their “arrogant anonymous attitude” that inconsistently blocked him carrying aerosol cans of shaving cream on flights. Airport security replied expressing their “regret for the irksome restrictions”. Two years later he was back raising the issue of the seizure of an aerosol can of show shine cream accusing authorities of operating a rule to “fiddle about with show shine cream and teddy bears”.

You can read more of Chris Ryder’s letters and the responses as well as correspondence about the BA pilots aversion to sleeping in Belfast in the PDF which contains scans of some of the documents in the thick airport security file now available to read in the Public Records Office.

Today’s air travellers encounter restrictions on aerosol cans too, though that’s part of the greater security that was rolled out worldwide post-9/11. Some airlines once again no longer use Belfast as an overnight base: however this is for commercial rather than security reasons.

Ingress and egress to Belfast International Airport has certainly improved, and by the early 1980s I can remember heading up from Lisburn to Aldergrove as a family on many Friday evenings for a thorough search of the car’s boot and a cup of tea in the café (roughly on the spot that the Burger King franchise now sits) while looking out at the planes.

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