Simon Calder: Sky marshals bring no comfort to a beleaguered industry

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"How do you get to be a millionaire?" Sir Richard Branson likes to ask. "Become a billionaire, then start an airline." The Virgin Atlantic chairman is one of very few people to have made a large sums of money in airlines, but this morning he must be pondering the cost of the Government's decision to deploy armed sky marshals on British jets.

Britain's civil aviation industry, at the end of a dismal year, has received yet another blow. At the start of 2003, the prospect of war with Iraq stifled sales to leisure and business travellers unwilling to commit at a time of global uncertainty. Asia was the one part of the world that appeared to be relatively unaffected, but the unexpected appearance of Sars caused bookings to the region to slump dramatically.

During the past few months, confidence among the travelling public has begun to rebuild. International passengers are flying in the same numbers as before 11 September 2001, albeit at substantially lower average fares. But the deployment of armed sky marshals on flights operated by UK airlines will cause yet more despondency.

One significant matter is that the sky marshal will occupy a seat that could otherwise be sold. Aircraft are flying with higher loads than ever, and are often full on major routes. Profit or loss on an average flight is often a matter of just a couple of seats.

Assuming the airlines will be expected to carry the sky marshal free of charge, there will be a direct impact on earnings.

But passenger anxiety is of greater concern for the airlines. Some prospective travellers will infer from the Government's announcement yesterday that there is a serious risk of an attempted hijack on British airlines, and switch to an overseas carrier, or decide not to travel at all. Even though the sky marshal will be unidentifiable, the knowledge that someone on board may be carrying a gun will scare off some potential passengers, fearing that a bullet could pierce the fuselage of an aircraft and precipitate depressurisation of the cabin.

The typical easyJet flight from Edinburgh to Luton or Ryanair departure from Stansted to Dublin is unlikely to be carrying a marksman. But all UK airlines are likely to suffer as a result of heightened worries among customers.

The nature of the perceived threat that caused the Government to act is puzzling. All British airlines that fly to the US have spent heavily on installing reinforced cockpit doors. They have been required to do this to comply with new American rules designed to prevent a repeat of 11 September 2001, when terrorists overpowered flight crews to use civil aircraft as guided weapons.

Given that the flight deck is effectively sealed off from the cabin, the authorities may fear that some sort of outrage will be perpetrated by terrorists on the other passengers on board.

If the terrorists' aim is to disseminate fear and disrupt normal life, they will take comfort from this move. The more uncomfortable and stressful flying becomes, the deeper the impact on Britain's airlines and their staff.