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U.S.: Washington Pushes For Sky Marshals On Foreign Airliners

From now on, passengers on foreign airlines flying to the United States may find themselves in the same cabin as an unusual fellow traveler -- an armed sky marshal. That's because the U.S. government has ordered foreign airliners to deploy the armed guards on some flights. The move is designed to thwart terror attacks, but it has prompted a mixed response.

Prague, 30 December 2003 (RFE/RL) -- "[The] notice today is in recognition that this is an international challenge and that, as aviation partners, we need to consider this possibility in the future," U.S. Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge said yesterday.

He was explaining his department's latest directive: Foreign airlines must now put armed sky marshals on certain designated flights to and from the United States, if intelligence indicates there's a potential threat.

The United States says the move is necessary to further boost airline security and prevent terrorists using aircraft to mount attacks like those of 11 September 2001.

It comes a week after the United States raised its terror alert to the second-highest level, and just days after Air France canceled six U.S.-bound flights over security concerns.

U.S. State Department spokesman Adam Ereli said: "I think there is a recognition worldwide that we live in dangerous times. There are serious threats out there, and that it is incumbent upon all of us to do what we can to protect our citizens and our way of life from these threats."

But response to the move has been mixed. Government officials and airline companies in Britain, Mexico, and Russia said they are willing to cooperate. The Netherland's KLM said it's discussing sky marshals as one of a package of new security measures. Others, among them carriers in Canada and Germany's Lufthansa, have already been placing guards on some U.S.-bound flights.

But there's been opposition too. Jim McAuslan, general secretary of the British Airline Pilots' Association, said: "We believe firearms and pressurized cabins do not mix. We believe that we may have minimized one risk, the risk of terrorism, and increased another risk, the risk of flight safety."

David Learmount is operations and safety editor at "Flight International" magazine. He says the approach in the United States, where there's a long-standing air-marshal program, is that guns on board will make planes safer. Many Europeans think the opposite.

"The Americans say: 'What if an armed terrorist does get onto the aircraft? He might by some means get into the fortified, gun-proof cockpit. It's highly unlikely but what if he did? Well, [the solution is to] give pilots guns.' Europeans give another 'what if?' 'What if a sky marshal takes a gun on board an aircraft and then a very well-briefed terrorist with unarmed-combat skills or perhaps a group of them get on board an aircraft? They don't take guns on board because they don't think they could get them through security, but they know there's a gun on board and they go for it and get it and all of a sudden the security system has provided them with their very own gun.' That's why Europe doesn't want it. The International Air Transport Association, which is the world's airlines' trade association, does not want this, pilots' unions across Europe don't want it, they see that this will do more harm than good," Learmount said.

Chris Yates says this opposition partly explains why the order came only now, and not earlier. Yates is an aviation security expert for "Jane's" publications. "Indeed it does seem obvious that sky marshals should have been put in place after 11 September," he said. "But it has to be said there's been almost a culture in certain countries of not using these personnel on board flights for various safety reasons. Therefore it's taken some time, certainly for the Europeans, to train up enough personnel to support an order such as Tom Ridge of the Department of Homeland Security came up with yesterday."

Ideally, of course, potential terrorists would not get anywhere near an airplane in the first place. Many of the extra security measures taken in the wake of the 11 September attacks have focused on airport ground security. But Yates says there's still much room for improvement.

"So many aviation associations around the world have called on governments for more research, better technology, better screening at airports, and better intelligence gathering to ensure that these people, whoever they are, don't get anywhere near the airplanes in the first place. That's an argument I'd support. I personally wouldn't like to be sitting on an airplane with a sky marshal on board who has a shoot out with a terrorist. I might be between the terrorist and the sky marshal and I might get hurt," Yates said.

But the United States has a powerful tool to overcome any remaining reluctance to deploy sky marshals -- airlines may be denied access to U.S. airspace if they refuse to comply.