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Last Updated: Monday, 29 December, 2003, 15:20 GMT
Pilots demand talks on marshals
Air marshals in training in the US
Undercover air marshals will be employed on some flights
The British airline pilots' union is demanding talks with ministers on plans to put undercover armed marshals on flights this week.

News that marshals are being deployed pre-empted a US demand that foreign planes carry "a law enforcement officer" at certain times.

UK ministers say their move is a "responsible and prudent" response to the heightened terror alert in the US.

But the pilots' union says staff might refuse if guns are allowed on planes.

US demand

The undercover marshals are expected to begin work on Monday or Tuesday.

The Department for Transport would not say whether or not the move was linked to the US demand, which will apply to specific flights.

You can never rule out the possibility that someone can get on a plane having been through all the security checks and still have some devious plan in hand
Security expert Mike Bluestone

Earlier, Transport Secretary Alistair Darling stressed the best control was to prevent potential hijackers boarding planes in the first place.

But he told BBC Radio 4's Today programme: "It is someone who's there when obviously people have got on to the plane and are intent on trying to take over that plane. It is the last line of defence."

The government refused to comment on whether air marshals had already been used on British flights.

US Homeland Security Department spokesman Dennis Murphy said its officials would notify foreign carriers "on a flight-by-flight basis" when it thought air marshals were needed.

Civilian clothes

Jim McAuslan, general secretary of the British Airline Pilots Association (Balpa), said the union would be recommending that pilots stop flying unless certain conditions were met on the use of marshals.

"For a start we don't believe that guns and air travel mix," he said.

He said pilots would need to be informed if a marshal was going to be on board their plane.

"The commander needs to retain authority over the whole of the aircraft."

However, the government has said the marshals will be disguised as regular passengers.

But Mr Darling said the aircraft's captain would know if an air marshal was on the plane.

We have concerns about having armed people on aircraft.
British Airways

The marshals will be used on a small number of transatlantic flights where it was deemed right for the situation.

Transatlantic carriers Virgin Atlantic have declined to comment.

But a British Airways spokeswoman said: "We have always said we have concerns about having armed people on aircraft.

She continued: "We feel it is best to have strong security on the ground and that is where the focus of attention should be.

"We have always been of the opinion that if it is not safe to fly then we will not fly."

'Subtlety needed'

Gwyneth Dunwoody, chairman of the Commons transport select committee, told BBC Radio 4's World At One the scheme had not been properly thought through.

"Security is not unfortunately someone waving a gun around in a pressurised machine, it is actually a rather more subtle and long-term investment," she said.

The announcement follows a number of security scares involving airports in recent days.

Last Wednesday and Thursday six Air France flights between Paris and Los Angeles were cancelled amid fears of a terror attack.

US intelligence had suggested al-Qaeda members posing a "credible threat" were due to board.

And hours later, the Delta Airlines terminal at New York's LaGuardia Airport was evacuated in a scare.

Transatlantic planes at Heathrow
Transatlantic flights are likely to be the most affected
Mr Darling announced back in February that armed undercover police had been trained for use on UK passenger flights.

On Monday, Conservative shadow transport secretary Theresa May welcomed the move but suggested pilots should have been better consulted.

"Most passengers want the extra comfort of knowing that the pilots are entirely comfortable with it," she told BBC News 24.

Liberal Democrat home affairs spokesman Mark Oaten said everything had to be done to ensure passengers' safety.

"But the home secretary must make it clear if this is a reaction to new evidence, or a delayed response to previous intelligence," he said.

Sunday's announcement follows similar moves by the Australian Government to use armed guards on many flights between Australia and Singapore.

Air marshals have been used in America since before the 11 September terror attacks on New York when there were just 33 sky marshals, flying mainly on international flights.

The BBC's Margaret Gilmore
"America says some planes won't be allowed in if they don't have armed guards"

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