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EU Split Over Sky Marshals

A U.S. government demand that foreign airlines put armed marshals on selected flights to and from the U.S. is putting European airlines opposed to the practice under pressure and creating yet another transatlantic row.


Practicing for the real thing: A U.S. sky marshal in a mock hijacking attempt.

Ireland, which currently holds the EU's rotating presidency, has said it plans to hold a summit of EU aviation officials to resolve the crisis between Europe and the U.S. over the deployment of armed air marshals on certain transatlantic flights.

Several EU member states -- including Sweden, Denmark, and Portugal -- have said they oppose the new regulations, which are part of the U.S. government's tighter security precautions aimed to prevent a terrorist attack similar to that on Sept. 11, 2001.

Although Washington has not yet specified with what frequency and on what routes it expects airlines to have sky marshals on board, some European airlines say compliance will mean economic disadvantages. Georg Fongern of the international pilots' association IFALPA described the U.S. directive as "unaffordable." He said the measures will hinder the competitveness of European airlines, which unlike American airlines, won't be able to count on government support for the implementation of the measures and the cost of the seats taken up by air marshals.

Air marshals not new in Europe

Some European airlines, however, are taking the new U.S. directive in stride. The German carrier Lufthansa, for example, has been deploying air marshals on some flights since October 2001. Shortly after the Sept.11 terrorist attacks, Germany's Federal Border Guard assembled a troop of around 100 marshals to accompany randomly selected Lufthansa flights to North American destinations. So far the marshals have never had cause to intervene.

Switzerland, although not a member of the EU, has been using air marshals for over 30 years, with specially trained undercover police and army recruits boarding random international flights.

France, which up until the 2003 pre-Christmas period had never had armed guards on flights, has said it would put air marshals on flights to the U.S. if information from American or domestic intelligence showed it was necessary.

British pilots unhappy

The U.S. demands have created controversy in its traditional ally Britain, where government officials defended the additional security measures despite opposition from British pilots, who fear the presence of armed air marshals could create more danger on transatlantic flights.

"The thought that you have got people behind you in a pressurized cabin with guns and bullets is not a happy thought," said a spokesman for the British pilot's association, BALPA. "But if the government persists, we want certain conditions laid down."

The British pilots' union is now working on gaining concessions, such as the right for pilots to be informed when air marshals are on board, and an agreement that the flight captain should retain overall command. The union also wants assurances that pilots and crew be given the choice not to fly on planes that will be manned with air marshals.

British Airways has said it will accept the presence of air marshals, but charter company Thomas Cook Airlines, which is partly owned by Lufthansa, announced that it would rather ground its flights to the U.S. than have armed marshals on board.

German pilots' good experience

German pilots with experience of flying with air marshals on board have said they've overcome their initial mistrust of the situation. "I've so far only had positive experiences," said Capt. Markus Kirscheck from the pilots' association Cockpit, adding that good training is essential for good cooperation. He said German pilots work together with the trainers of air marshals in a simulator, so that both sides understand each other's jobs.

Still, IFALPA views the U.S. directive as an attack on the sovereignty of other states, and says there are other, less expensive ways to prevent an airplane from turning into a terrorist weapon. The security improvements to cockpit doors, and increased security measures in airports for example, mean air marshals can offer limited additional security, according to IFALPA's Georg Fongern. "We have to banish danger on the ground," he said. "Once you're in the air, it's too late."

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  • Date 08.01.2004
  • Author DW staff (dc)
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  • Permalink http://p.dw.com/p/4XPP
  • Date 08.01.2004
  • Author DW staff (dc)
  • Print Print this page
  • Permalink http://p.dw.com/p/4XPP