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.
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.