Europe skeptical of sky marshals
Ten transatlantic flights were canceled over the weekend amid heightened fears of a possible Al Qaeda attack.
International air travelers may find themselves increasingly grounded at the last minute - as some did over the weekend - while European and US authorities tussle over the use of armed sky marshals.Skip to next paragraph
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"Hopefully it won't happen," says Anthony Council, a spokesman for the International Air Travel Association, which groups 270 airlines. "But when extraordinary situations happen, we need to take extraordinary measures. We need to keep our options open."
Washington has reserved the right to demand sky marshals on specific flights to the US, but European governments and carriers are reluctant to put guns on planes. Without an agreement between the two sides, cancellation of suspect flights appears the only alternative, say government and industry sources.
Ten transatlantic flights were canceled last weekend in light of what a spokesman for the US Department of Homeland Security called "specific and credible information that Al Qaeda would attack these flights on those dates." That followed a similar episode over the Christmas holidays, when 16 international flights were canceled or delayed.
Air France canceled flights from Paris to Washington Sunday and Monday on "the principle of precaution when there are signals," French Transport Minister Gilles de Robien said on RFO television. "We work very well with the Americans and they send us those signals."
The US government announced at the end of last year that suspect flights into US airspace would be turned back unless they carried an armed sky marshal. Though US undersecretary for border and transportation security Asa Hutchinson - meeting European officials two weeks ago - defused resentment at what some governments saw as a unilateral imposition, he found no European consensus on the issue.
The British and French governments have said they are prepared, in principle, to put sky marshals aboard planes carrying their flags, and the German carrier Lufthansa says it has used sky marshals on transatlantic flights since soon after the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001.
But airlines in Norway, Sweden, Finland and Portugal have publicly refused the measure, and other European governments are hesitant.
"The indications are that a European-level agreement is unlikely," says Tom Rowley, spokesman for Irish Transport Minister Seamus Brennan, whose government, currently presiding over the European Union, has explored the possibility of a single continentwide approach.
Apart from anything else, Mr. Rowley points out, only a few European nations have trained sky marshals, whose use is not customary on European airlines.
Transatlantic differences hinge partly on attitudes to firearms. "Most Europeans...think that guns are dangerous, and that having guns aboard planes increases, rather than decreases, the likelihood of innocent people getting hurt," wrote Amit Chanda and Kate Joynes of the World Markets Research Center, a London-based political research group, in The International Herald Tribune recently.