Pilots' union to allow sky marshals despite reservations

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A deal to allow sky marshals on British flights to the United States looked inevitable last night, after the pilots' union apparently reached an agreement with Virgin Atlantic.

The British Airline Pilots' Association (Balpa) said it was still opposed, in principle, to armed guards on aircraft, but the union is understood to have reached an accord with Sir Richard Branson's company.

Jim McAuslan, the general secretary of the union, intended to strike similar agreements with other airlines and will attempt to reach an "over-arching deal" in talks with Alistair Darling, the Transport Secretary, next week.

Virgin is thought to have backed Balpa's demands that, where marshals are deployed, the captain will remain in charge at all times. The airline is thought to have accepted that pilots will also be told when the guards are present, who they are and where they will sit. The pilots will also expect to be in regular contact with them. The accord is understood to cover the type of weapons to be used and the training given to personnel.

Balpa is insisting that the guards must be former Metropolitan police officers or personnel with equivalent experience, after expressing concern about incidents in America where "cowboys" have allegedly been used.

Under the Virgin agreements, the legal liability and insurance indemnity of flight crew is thought to have been clarified. One pilot was sued in the US after an innocent passenger was injured in a shoot-out involving a sky marshal.

One industry source said the Government was only introducing the system on the insistence of the US authorities and ministers had not "thought through" its implications. The source added: "If guards are only going to be used where there is a perceived threat, then pilots could quite legitimately ask why the flight should proceed."

The union hopes to "roll out" the Virgin deal across the industry, but is aware that government backing is critical.

Mr McAuslan said his union remained opposed to the concept of guns on board aircraft. He said: "This will not make flights more safe. However, we have always said that, if the Government persists with its decision that sky marshals be used and if our very serious concerns are met, we shall co-operate as best we can. We now have an agreement with one airline, which we cannot name." Virgin refused to confirm its agreement with Balpa.

British Airways, which operates more than 50 flights a day between London and 18 US cities, has made clear that it was far from convinced that use of marshals would improve security. But BA said yesterday that, given the Government's determination to introduce the system, it would agree to the deployment of marshals on specific flights, provided it believed that security would be enhanced.