United States-style armed sky marshals will secretly be installed on flights in and out of Britain, Transport Secretary Alistair Darling has told The Independent on Sunday.
His announcement comes in the wake of renewed fears of terror attacks in the air against British airlines that led last week to the grounding of all flights to and from Kenya.
The initiative, first suggested after the 11 September 2001 attacks on the US, has met with fierce opposition from the airlines.
Mr Darling is adamant the scheme will go ahead. In an exclusive interview, he said: "We said we had trained a number of people who could be deployed if necessary. We will never release when and where they are deployed for obvious reasons, but the facility is there."
Airlines remain sceptical. British Airways declined to confirm whether or not sky marshals were being used on their flights.
"As a responsible airline we have concerns about the presence or use of firearms on board an aircraft. But we are working hard with the Government to make sure that those plans do not jeopardise onboard safety and ensure that the correct procedures are in place, should deployment be necessary," a BA spokeswoman said yesterday.
The risk to passengers flying in and out of Nairobi airport was deemed too great to allow any flights at all, Mr Darling said. And the suspension – which will not be compensated – will last "as long as it takes", the Transport Secretary said. "We have an overriding duty to advise airlines on safety. We had no option but to advise them it was not safe to fly."
Since flights to Kenya were suspended on Thursday after the Government warned of a "clear terrorist threat", British nationals have also been advised against travelling to Uganda, Ethiopia, Somalia, Tanzania, Eritrea and Djibouti.
BA says there has been no explicit instruction from the Department of Transport requiring them to halt flights to these destinations. And, as Kenya Airways put on extra flights to get British tourists home, BA continued to make plans to fly its passengers in Nairobi to other African countries before getting a flight back to Britain.
The Government is anxious that the international terror threat is met as well as it can be. Mr Darling said he was ready to take whatever steps necessary to protect the travelling public. That included putting armed guards on board aircraft.
Mr Darling said: "We live in a world where there has been a terrorist threat for a long time. We lived with it for 30 years in relation to Northern Ireland. This is of a different order of magnitude. What is important is that we maintain as normal a life as possible. When necessary we will take the necessary steps ... The public expects the Government to do everything it reasonably can, but you can never make things 100 per cent certain."Reuse content