Armed marshals likely on Irish planes
Published 11/01/2004 | 00:11
THE MAIN fear, in the minds of passengers at least, about placing armed air marshals on board airliners is of a dramatic life-and-death struggle in the aisle between a hijacker and the pistol-brandishing air marshal in which the marshal's gun goes off puncturing the aluminum skin of the aircraft. Alive in many people's minds is the image of people being sucked out a gaping h
THE MAIN fear, in the minds of passengers at least, about placing armed air marshals on board airliners is of a dramatic life-and-death struggle in the aisle between a hijacker and the pistol-brandishing air marshal in which the marshal's gun goes off puncturing the aluminum skin of the aircraft. Alive in many people's minds is the image of people being sucked out a gaping hole in the cabin.
The image is not so much based on reality, but on the famous scene aboard a jet in the Sixties movie, Goldfinger, in which the villain is sucked out of the side of his private jet after trying to shoot James Bond.
According to security specialists, the reality of a shot piercing the side of a modern aircraft would be dramatic but not deadly. If the skin of the aircraft was punctured by a bullet there would be a drop in cabin pressure and the loss of breathable air. But the oxygen masks would immediately drop and the pilot would dive to a flight level of under 10,000 where there would be sufficient air pressure for the rest of the journey to be completed safely and even in relative comfort. Passenger aircraft have landed safely with gaping holes in their fuselages caused by mid air collisions or structure failure.
The main problem arising from the discharge of a gun on board an ordinary jet airliner would be if a window was shattered and, if someone beside it was not strapped in, they could theoretically be sucked out. The other danger would be if a live round hit part of the aircraft's wiring or hydraulics.
But even these two prospects are almost impossible given the type of low-velocity ammunition currently being used by air marshals, according to one expert who spoke to the Sunday Independent. The ammunition being supplied to air marshals in the United States and elsewhere is the low-velocity "fragmentation" type of bullet which is designated in some countries as "less than lethal" ammunition. The bullets, fired by a 9mm pistol, are little more than small buckshot cartridges.
If the fragmentation round is fired at close range it should penetrate clothing and skin. But if the air marshal had to fire from the far end of a passenger cabin the round could bounce of the hijacker's clothing although it would deliver a "punch" that should knock him of his feet.
The main problem over the use of these fragmentation rounds is that their low velocity discharge causes problems in some guns and a tendency for them to jam. As a result, the air marshals already flying on aircraft from the United States, Israel, Australia and other countries are also equipped with Taser stun guns which incapacitate the target with a massive static electrical shock. Air marshals also wear body armour to prevent them from being shot or stabbed.
The issue of deploying air marshals has taken a long time to arise here and only because of the cancellation of British Airways and Air France flights over Christmas after US Intelligence reported a "credible threat" from figures suspected of being Al-Qaeda trying to board flights.
US Intelligence, according to senior security sources here, now believe that the Islamic terrorists have decided that boarding internal US flights is much more difficult than before September 2001 and that, instead, they may try to take over flights into the United States. It is one of several plausible terrorist threats currently being examined by security analysts.
The issue of air marshals on flights from Ireland to the United States is still being considered, but Government sources say it is likely that Ireland will accede to the US demands for greater security and the presence of marshals on flights into the US.
In the event, the air marshals will be experienced gardai or soldiers - the stipulation in the US, UK and elsewhere is that they have at least 15 years experience - with a background in armed operations. The soldiers or police selected for the job will receive training in close-quarter combat and disarming techniques, tactical response and "tactical appreciation", a term used for the observation and targeting of potential terrorists.
The air marshals are supposed to mingle anonymously with passengers in the airport in order to pinpoint potential threats. They would, for instance, pay particular attention to someone who suspiciously seeks a seat close to the cockpit. They would also look for anyone showing undue signs of anxiety. The air marshals would have the complete passenger list and would be responsible for checking it against lists of known or potential terrorists beforehand.
They remain anonymous on board. Their role is strictly limited to intervention only in a case of possible hijack - they are under instructions in the US not to react to air rage events unless there is a threat to the safety of the aircraft.
Air marshals have been on board El Al flights for over 30 years, in the US for over a decade but their introduction to cross-Atlantic flights has come about largely as a complete reappraisal of air safety in the wake of the September 11 attacks.
The previous international guidelines on aircraft security were based on the old-fashioned hijacking experience where aircraft were taken over, mostly by Middle Eastern terrorists, to be used as bargaining chips for the release of prisoners or other political demands. The old international aviation security policy was based on the premise that the hijackers did not intend to kill themselves, the rest of the passengers and crew and large numbers of people on the ground.
In America, the experience of September 11, 2001 created the groundswell of both popular and industry opinion that overturned remaining arguments against the use of air marshals. The argument was clinched by the fact that the passengers on board United Airways Flight 93, who had contacted their families by mobile telephone and knew of the Twin Towers attacks, realised that the aircraft was being used as a weapon. They chose to attack and overwhelm the hijackers knowing they would be going to their own deaths.
The introduction of marshals short-circuits the situation that forced the passengers of Flight 93 to take such drastic action.
Opposition to air marshals remains high in Europe and parts of the European aviation industry. Portugal, Demark, Sweden and Finland are against air marshals and the German-operated tour company, Thomas Cook Airlines, says it will cancel flights rather than be forced to have marshals on board.
Pilot's representative groups are insistent that the pilot must remain in charge of all decisions in relation to the aircraft - in other words the pilot cannot be told to land or what action to take - and should be made aware of the identity of the marshal.
There are also objections from civil libertarians who say that air marshals will target people on the basis of the colour of their skin. They cite the case of a Dr Bob Rajcoomar who was handcuffed and rough handled by air marshals in Florida in 2002 after an air rage incident on the aircraft in which he had no involvement. Dr Rajcoomar's lawyers successfully argued that he was handcuffed and arrested merely because he and his wife were the only dark skinned people on the flight.