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Last Updated: Tuesday, 30 December, 2003, 19:48 GMT
'Sky marshals should be last option'
Transatlantic planes at Heathrow
An aircraft's fuselage can withstand gun fire
If the US is to prevail, flights into the United States will have an armed individual on board - a sky marshal.

Many US flights already have one - and other countries have also introduced armed guards on board, including Germany, Canada and Australia.

Israel's El Al has had armed marshals operating on its flights for more than 30 years.

The cautiously screened, highly-equipped and motivated individuals are supposed to bring under control a possible hijacker - and thus save many lives.

Their presence is designed to reassure the flying public - but they may not even be aware of their presence, for one of the virtues of the sky marshal is the ability to remain an inconspicuous, innocent-looking passenger.

And they must abide by strict rules of engagement, experts warn - the marshals are not on police duty even though many in Britain, for instance, have been drawn from police ranks.

Shrewd and calculating would-be hijackers may stage-manage an air-rage incident solely for the purpose of "outing" the onboard marshal and subsequently disarming him, says David Learmount, editor at Flight International Magazine.

Rules of engagements

Pilots are particularly concerned about the chain of command in an aircraft that might have more than one armed individual.

El Al's plainclothes marshals sit among the aircraft's passengers - but their special seats are said to be equipped with buttons to alert the flight deck of any trouble.

Upon receiving the warning, pilots are under orders to roll and dive the plane to overbalance anyone standing, the Guardian newspaper reports.

At the same time, oxygen masks drop to the guards' seats only, giving them an advantage over the alleged hijacker, the paper says.

There is no evidence to suggest that they are a real deterrent
Philip Baum
Aviation Security International
US pilots say they are drawing upon the Israeli experience - and the arrangement works.

Flight commanders, however, remain in charge, even though they co-ordinate with the marshal, Captain Chris Beebe, from the American Pilots Association - and a pilot of a major US carrier - told the BBC.

It was important, Mr Beebe told the World Service's Newshour programme, that the more security there was on board an aircraft, the better.

But the British Airline Pilots Association (Balpa) has instructed its pilots not to operate flights that carry sky marshals "until adequate and written assurances are received".

These include putting the captain - not the armed guard - in charge at all times, and reassurances about the weapons to be used and the training given.

Air marshals represent "the last line of defence" in an emergency, says Philip Baum, editor-in-chief of Aviation Security International.

"There is no evidence to suggest that they are a real deterrent," Mr Baum told the BBC, as they can only be deployed on a tiny number of flights.

Security ought to be tightened around airports in the first place, he said.


For several months now, cockpits of the aircraft flying into the US have been fitted with bullet-proof doors - and video surveillance systems - making forcible entry almost impossible.

Therefore, there is no crying need for armed sky marshals on board to prevent prospective hijackers from seizing control of an aeroplane, David Learmount told BBC News Online.

Their presence could even be dangerous, Mr Learmount says.

Air marshals in training in the US
Sky marshals should remain inconspicuous
Sky marshals are said to be armed with a hand gun and low-velocity ammunition which is supposed to cause as little damage as possible to the fuselage and the aircraft's electrical, electronic and hydraulic systems.

An airplane is highly unlikely to be brought down as a result of flying bullets - persistent shooting may be needed to penetrate the windows, for instance, Mr Learmount says, in addition to the fact that aircraft have many "stand-by systems".

And the "neater" damage of high-velocity weapons could even make re-pressurising the cabin considerably easier.

But the use of low-velocity bullets in an exchange of fire can certainly increase dramatically the risk to passengers, he says.

Q&A: Air marshals
28 Dec 03  |  UK
Are air marshals a good idea?
29 Dec 03  |  Have Your Say
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22 Dec 03  |  Americas

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