Air Marshals Or Cowboys?

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There was something a bit rich about Washington ordering other countries to place armed guards on certain flights entering the U.S., as Secretary of Homeland Security Tom Ridge did on Dec. 29. After all, the country making the rules still does not inspect the vast majority of its cargo or all of its checked baggage at its airports, standard procedures in some countries. And America's several thousand armed air marshals have figured in 600 reports of misconduct from October 2001 to July 2003. Last year a marshal was fired for drawing his gun on a man who had stolen his airport parking spot.

So it's not shocking that the mandate has met with resistance. For some countries, it was one indignity too many in a series of new directives — mandatory finger-printing and photographing of certain passengers entering the U.S. and a ban on congregating in aisles on international flights, even outside the bathrooms. Moreover, there was a fundamental disagreement on the value of policing airplanes. "The majority of European airlines are not convinced that sky marshals are the way forward," says British airline consultant Jamie Bowden. They much prefer security measures that take place on the ground. A number of countries — including France, Germany and Russia — have bowed to the U.S. demand anyway, and British Airways pilots have tentatively agreed. But Thomas Cook Airlines has said it will ground flights deemed high risk rather than put marshals on board. Officials in Norway, Sweden, Denmark, Portugal and South Africa are also refusing to comply. That will probably mean more canceled flights if the U.S. cannot make a more convincing argument.

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There are upsides to having protectors in your midst, as passengers on a Northwest Airlines flight from Honolulu to Seattle discovered last month. A man, 29, with a history of assault convictions charged toward the cockpit, shouting that he wanted to see the pilot. He was quickly subdued by undercover marshals. They did not need to use guns. But because weapons can still make it past airport screeners, as test runs have shown, some security experts say marshals must be given deadly tools. "A gun on board is a piece of emergency equipment," says Steve Luckey, head of the security committee for a U.S. pilots' union. "Of course, there is a risk that it will be taken away or there may be an accident, and training is key. But we're no longer in the era of relying on slingshots as weapons."

The good news is that firing a gun on board would be unlikely to bring down a plane. A commercial aircraft is strong enough to withstand multiple bullet holes, according to a Boeing executive's testimony before Congress last year. Israel, Germany, Russia, Ethiopia and Canada are known to use or have used armed marshals.

The problem with marshals is that they are human. A private company hired by Air France was found last year to have been using unarmed in-flight guards with repeated and in some cases violent criminal records. (France now guards high-risk flights with members of an elite police unit, many of whom carry stun guns and other nonlethal weapons instead of guns.) In the U.S., a frenzy of air-marshal hires after 9/11 led to scandals over insufficient training and bad behavior. A marshal was suspended two years ago after he left his gun in a lavatory on a United flight from Washington to Las Vegas, a USA Today investigation revealed. A passenger discovered the weapon. The marshal service has since improved its record. Still, the vast majority of domestic flights go unpoliced. Officials will not release exact figures, but there are several thousand marshals in the U.S. and more than 13,000 commercial flights a day.

A Northwest Airlines captain with 25 years of experience says he has been impressed with the marshals he has met but thinks they are superfluous. He is worried that "a lot of money is being spent on something I don't think is very valuable." The pilot, who spoke on condition of anonymity, says he has more confidence in the reinforced cockpit doors that have been installed in U.S. passenger planes. Marshals, who usually travel in pairs and are not allowed to drink alcohol or sleep on board, fly an average of 4.2 hours a day, 18 days a month, and earn on average $52,000 a year.

The merits of marshals aside, the fracas over their use on overseas carriers is also about pride. Foreign-airline officials are getting less tolerant of U.S. dictates and delays. Says a European-airline executive: "I think there is confusion and overlap of the U.S. agencies charged with aviation security, and the foreign carriers are bearing the burden. The U.S. system is a mess right now." Even some U.S. officials were discouraged by the hysterics that ensued last Tuesday after a passenger waiting to board a Delta flight in Paris was found to have wires sticking out of her motorcycle jacket. Airport security determined that the wires were part of a heating device built into the jacket, akin to an electric blanket, and called the incident a false alarm. But that didn't stop U.S. officials from tailing the plane into Cincinnati, Ohio, with fighter jets and then bringing aboard explosive-sniffing dogs. "We are now officially out of control," says a veteran aviation-security official.

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