The controversial way in which the use of sky marshals on British aeroplane flights has been announced by transport Minister Alastair Darling and Home Secretary David Blunkett, without proper consultation with either airline pilots or the general public, leads us to ask a few questions.
Why has this policy been implemented now, when it has not been considered necessary before ? What possible increase in the risk of hijacking can there have been since September 11th 2001 ?
Can a single sky marshal actually make a difference in foiling an armed hijack ? The endlessly repeated clips of training films shown on the TV news seem to give that impression. However we have severe doubts.
If a hijacked aeroplane lands at an airport, which implies that the hijackers, whilst deparate, may not be actually suicidal, it takes a whole special forces assault team of six to eight soldiers/policemen to board the aeroplane, armed with stun greandes and machine carbines in order to arrest or kill the hijackers. This has been demonstrated many times in the past, and there have been casualities amongst passengers and air crew as a result.
How is a single sky marshal, isolated and out of contact with either the authorities on the ground or even, it would seem, from the cabin crew and pilot, going to be able to be as effective as a six or eight man special forces assault squad ?
In the case like that of the September 11th 2001 hijackers, where there were ten or fifteen hijackers per aerioplane, what use would such a sky marshal have been even if he could have shot half a dozen of them ?
If the presence of an armed sky marshal is witheld from the cabin crew, what happens when they detect the presence of a "suspicious" person staring around from his aisle seat, obviously concealing a weapon ? Do they organise an attempt to overpower him ? Is the pilot forced to make an emergency diversion and landing ?
What is a sky marshal going to do when the cabin crew and passengers are threatened by a drunken celebrity/popstar/footballer/lager lout, something which happens hundreds of times a year. Are they going to shoot the unarmed passenger or let the cabin crew and other passengers deal with the incident as they normally do ?
How is anybody meant to trust an ID card or badge which purports to say sky marshal ? There have already been cases where people have falsely claimed to be sky marshals and have attempted to "inspect" the flight deck. This would be an ideal document for a terrorist to forge.
The British Airline Pilots' Association is right to be extremely concerned about the secret and arbitrary plans for the use of sky marshals. They should refuse to fly if the risk to passengers is considered to be so great that there is the percieved need for the presence of a sky marshal.
If there is specific intelligence about a terrorist hijack threat to a particular flight, then which civil servant allows the flight to take off in the first place, putting passengers' lives at risk ?
If there is specific intelligence about suspicious people boarding the flight, why are they not checked more thoroughly and if necessary arrested before they board the flight ? There are already huge computerised blacklists and passenger database profiling systems like CAPPS and CAPPS2 which already secretly profile passengers into risk categories.
Given the stupid inflexible bureaucracy and secrecy involved with airport security, what assurances are there that once the decision has been made to "protect" a particular flight with armed sky marshal(s), despite no arrests of suspects at the airport, that the secret database profile records of some or all the "protected" passengers will not be updated with a "guilt by association" profile score, which will cause them future hassle and embarassment ?
The whole ill thought out "policy" of sky marshals smacks of a waste of security resources, and additional costs which will be borne by the passengers, with no actual security benefit for the travelling public.