Foreign airlines to carry guards

U.S. order targets flights considered terrorism risks

Onboard weapons worry some

Noncompliance could lead to ban from U.S. airspace

December 30, 2003|By Laura Sullivan | Laura Sullivan,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - Moving to prevent terrorist hijackings, U.S. officials will require foreign airlines to carry armed guards aboard some planes entering or flying over the United States and might refuse them entry into U.S. airspace if they do not comply, Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge announced yesterday.

Ridge said the measure will affect international flights when intelligence information suggests the risk of an attack or a plot to hijack the plane. He said the Department of Homeland Security and other U.S. agencies will offer training to countries that cannot afford or do not have the experience necessary to train air marshals.

England, France and Mexico have indicated that they will cooperate with the new requirement, and other countries appear to be receptive, Ridge said.

A British Airways pilots union has expressed concern about having weapons on board planes.

"This is another in a long list of measures that we have taken in the last 2 1/2 years to increase aircraft security," Ridge said at a news conference. "This is an international challenge that we all have."

Ridge said the United States, if necessary, will force foreign governments to cooperate by holding over them the possibility of refusing them entry into or over the United States. Such a penalty could cripple foreign carriers, hundreds of which operate in U.S. airspace.

"Ultimately, the denial of access is the leverage you have," Ridge said.

The directive came in the form of three emergency amendments to airline security regulations and pertains to passenger and cargo flights, officials said. Thousands of aircraft fly into, out of and over the United States each day.

The regulations require that the trained security personnel be able to communicate with the aircraft's pilot and keep any passengers from reaching the cockpit.

Armed U.S. air marshals fly aboard many domestic flights. The number is classified.

The latest U.S. move is the result of conversations with some foreign governments and the State Department, Ridge said.

He said the decision to require guards on selected foreign flights was not based on intelligence that warned of a specific terrorist threat but had been the subject of discussions for several months.

The nation's terror alert status remains at orange, or "high risk," and is likely to stay that way at least into the new year. U.S. officials, who raised the alert level Dec. 21, remain concerned that al-Qaida could again hijack planes and use them as missiles, as it did on Sept. 11, 2001.

U.S. and French officials grounded six Air France flights to and from the United States on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day based on what Ridge said was "specific information that needed to be acted on" relative to the security of the flights.

French officials have since questioned several passengers and have shared that information with U.S. officials, Ridge said. The officials have reported no links between the passengers and extremist groups.

Although the terror alert is at its second-highest level, Ridge again urged Americans to continue with their holiday plans and travel by air, adding that he dropped off a close relative at the airport yesterday morning.

"Each of us must remember that we are at war, at war against an enemy driven by hate," Ridge said. "For them, victory is gained if we give in to terror or panic that they seek to create with their threats. ... The full force of Homeland Security all across this nation is at work to keep you safe."

It is unclear how some countries or airlines will be able to pay for putting armed personnel on board airplanes. Ridge said the United States would be willing to offer training but did not go much further, offering neither to help pay the costs nor to provide the personnel. Many countries also might balk at allowing weapons aboard aircraft.

The British Airline Pilots Association initially said it would be unwilling to cooperate but backed away from that position later in the day.

The association "does not agree with this initiative, but, given it reflects government policy and they have made clear their intention to deploy [air marshals], we have been attempting to secure an agreement with the Department of Transport" as to how they should be deployed, the association told members in a statement on their Web site.

The association also said they believe each pilot or crew member has the right to refuse to work a flight that has an armed marshal aboard.

Thomas Jacknow, spokesman for the German airline Luft- hansa, said that since the 2001 attacks, Lufthansa has had sky marshals aboard some of its flights.

Ridge said he recognizes that many countries have different procedures when it comes to security. "Not every country presently today has trained armed law enforcement personnel," he said. "And some have trained law enforcement personnel that do not have sidearms. Others are restricted from sidearm use. We would work around those scenarios if they occur."

A State Department spokesman said yesterday that the foreign governments the department has talked with appear to be willing to abide by the new regulations.

Aviation security experts said the announcement marks a significant change in that international security guidelines had been voluntary.

"In the past, no country has ever tried to impose on other countries any measures of aviation security," said Rafi Ron, president of New Age Security Solutions, a Washington-based consultant, and the former security director for the Israeli Airport Authority.

Ron predicted that despite concerns about armed air marshals expressed by British pilots and others, the measure will be enforced without much resistance because of the importance of the U.S. market to foreign carriers.

The Associated Press contributed to this article.

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