Airline pilots condemn sky marshal plan as flawed and dangerous

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Pilots are demanding an urgent meeting with ministers over the decision to place armed sky marshals on passenger jets flying across the Atlantic, following heightened concern about terrorist attacks.

Pilots are demanding an urgent meeting with ministers over the decision to place armed sky marshals on passenger jets flying across the Atlantic, following heightened concern about terrorist attacks.

The British Air Line Pilots' Association (Balpa) wrote to Alistair Darling, the Secretary of State for Transport, yesterday calling for a meeting to discuss the policy which it believes is "dangerous" and flawed. The association, which has said it does "not want guns on planes" has advised pilots to refuse to fly if they do not feel happy carrying armed marshals posing as passengers.

Mr Darling said he would meet the pilots to discuss their misgivings and said they would be told when an undercover marshal was on a flight.

The Secretary of State defended the Government's decision to allow plain-clothes officers with low-velocity weapons on selected flights, saying it was a "responsible and prudent step" that would be used "where appropriate".

He said their use was "only one of a number of measures" and "a last line of defence", together with increased screening of bags, to deter terrorists. But he warned that passengers could face longer queues at airports because of the "heightened" state of security.

"The best thing is to try to stop people getting on the aeroplane in the first place," he said on BBC Radio 4's Today programme.

"Most of our efforts are rightly focused on the screening of passengers' baggage."

Sky marshals are expected to begin deployment in the next 24 hours on transatlatic flights to and from the UK.

The Department of Transport denied that ministers had caved in to pressure from the US government to put the marshals on planes. But yesterday the Bush administration made it clear it would begin asking foreign airlines to place armed officers on planes to and from the United States, or flying through American airspace, in an attempt to thwart terror attacks. The new regulation, which takes effect immediately, came just one day after the British announcement.

"We are asking international air carriers to take this protective action as part of our ongoing effort to make air travel safe for Americans and visitors alike," the Homeland Security Secretary, Tom Ridge, said in a statement.

American officials said such requests would be made only when there were security concerns relating to specific flights.

"We will then notify the carrier that, based on information we received, we require a law enforcement officer to be on the plane," Dennis Murphy, a spokesman for Mr Ridge, commented. It is assumed that the armed officers will be supplied by the home-base country of each air carrier.

"What we are saying here is we expect this level of co-operation from all nations," Mr Murphy added. "This step is in case we might not get that same level of co-operation that we've received thus far from our closest allies. We anticipate the same level of co-operation from all air carriers that fly to and out of the US."

The British government was criticised by aviation experts, pilots and senior MPs for adopting the American example. Gwyneth Dunwoody, the Labour chairwoman of the iHouse of Commons Transport Select Committee, said she did not think the Government had "a fully thought-through policy" and should not be following the American measures.

"Security is not, unfortunately, about somebody waving a gun around in a pressurised machine. It is actually a rather more subtle and a rather more long-term investment than that," she said. "The Americans have got their ideas on security all wrong and have not taken advice from those people that know about it; and it looks as if the American government have influenced the British in this and I don't think it's necessarily a good idea."

UK airlines joined Balpa in criticising the government plan. They argued that having guns on a plane could increase the threat.

A spokeswoman for British Airways said: "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."