We're due to fly on British Airways from Manchester to London to Miami tomorrow and it looks as if we may be caught up in the latest terrorism-related scare and political dispute. I'm not nervous about flying…I'm nervous about not flying: it seems there is a chance that my flight may be cancelled due to a dispute between the British airline pilots' union (which opposes any guns on board their aircraft) and the US government which may require armed 'air marshalls' as a condition of flying into the US.
The US is requiring foreign carriers to have air marshalls on board. But the UK pilots' union (and maybe British Airways?) is balking. The UK government appears to have bowed to US pressure, perhaps because of actual intelligence info (who knows?), but BA is not happy about it.
[The UK government] emphasized in a statement on Monday that “only the U.K. can authorize the placing of air marshals on U.K. carriers.”
The British Air Line Pilots Association said in strong terms that arms did not belong on aircraft, and British Airways, the country's biggest airline, said it reserved the right not to fly if it was forced to add air marshals. “We have received the request for the deployment of cover capabilities on flights,” an official with the airline said. “Only if British Airways was satisfied that safety was enhanced would that flight take off.”
The airline pilots were less polite. On the TV news this evening they were quoted as saying that unless they can be satisfied that
- The pilot remains in command of the plane.
- The air marshalls are operating under written rules
- Their training is sufficient to make it safe to have them on board
then they don't want to fly. (The last condition may be much tougher than it sounds, given that the UK is being forced to rush the armed guards aloft without any time to plan this or train them!) The pilot interviewed hinted pretty strongly at a refusal to fly if these (quite reasonable, IMHO) demands were not met.
It looks as if my flight may be the first British one to have the new armed guards on board…and that the pilots' union is advising the pilots to stay on the ground:
The British Air Line Pilots' Association (Balpa) wrote to Alistair Darling, the Secretary of State for Transport, yesterday calling for a meeting to discuss the policy which it believes is “dangerous” and flawed. The association, which has said it does “not want guns on planes” has advised pilots to refuse to fly if they do not feel happy carrying armed marshals posing as passengers.
Mr Darling said he would meet the pilots to discuss their misgivings and said they would be told when an undercover marshal was on a flight.
The Secretary of State defended the Government's decision to allow plain-clothes officers with low-velocity weapons on selected flights, saying it was a “responsible and prudent step” that would be used “where appropriate”.
He said their use was “only one of a number of measures” and “a last line of defence”, together with increased screening of bags, to deter terrorists. But he warned that passengers could face longer queues at airports because of the “heightened” state of security.
“The best thing is to try to stop people getting on the aeroplane in the first place,” he said on BBC Radio 4's Today programme.
“Most of our efforts are rightly focused on the screening of passengers' baggage.”
Sky marshals are expected to begin deployment in the next 24 hours on transatlatic flights to and from the UK.
Wouldn't just strengthening the cabin door to the pilots' area be enough?
If the London-Miami flight won't fly we get stranded in London — we presumably have to do the Manchester-London leg no matter what and can't just elect to stay here, where we have a place to stay, until the dust settles. What happens in the event of a labour dispute to us and to our luggage will probably not be much fun.
Then there's this, which doesn't make me feel good either: Skies of Major U.S. Cities Off Limits for New Year. Again, I'm more worried by the hysteria than the formless threats. I sure hope they write the rules of engagement for those militiary pilots circling the civilian US skies carefully. Would they really shoot down a civilian plane?