- The Washington Times - Sunday, December 17, 2006

British pilots oppose a proposed change in the United States’ visa-waiver program that would require participating countries to provide armed security on U.S.-bound foreign airlines or allow U.S. air marshals to protect such flights.

“Any need to carry weapons on aircraft should be recognized as a failure of the airport security systems,” the British Air Line Pilots Association (BALPA) said.

British pilots favor “proper passenger profiling” through a “database of potential terrorists, their known aliases and all their known associates as well as known disruptive passengers,” the association said in a statement provided to The Washington Times.

Jarrod Agen, spokesman for the Homeland Security Department, said the program is in the early stages of being revamped to strengthen security, and changes still need to be discussed with foreign governments and approved by Congress.

“This is part of the issue, to have the ability to have federal air marshals on these international flights as part of the visa-waiver program,” Mr. Agen said.

The proposal says the United States will ask the 27 countries that participate in the visa-waiver program to cooperate with the air marshal program.

“The United States benefits from the enhanced security of allowing U.S. federal air marshals to operate aboard international flights to and from the United States,” it states.

The air marshal program requires personnel be sharpshooters who are able to requalify at a shooting range several times a year and carry Sig Sauer 9mm pistols.

Armed U.S. marshals already are permitted to fly on U.S.-owned airlines overseas. If air marshals in other countries do not meet U.S. standards, one option is to provide U.S. marshals for foreign airlines, Mr. Agen said.

The air marshal initiative is one of several reform measures the Homeland Security Department is pushing for the participating countries, including electronic travel authorizations, a passenger information exchange and stronger airport security standards.

“The United States will equally accept the burden of new security measures and will not require citizens of visa-waiver countries to adopt measures that we are unwilling to undertake ourselves,” Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff said.

The visa-waiver program allows travelers from participating countries to enter the United States without a visa if they have an e-passport with biometrics data, or a machine-readable passport issued before Oct. 26.

“Long-distance flights are in jeopardy” if not protected by armed marshals, former air marshal Robert MacLean said.

“The key to the [Federal Air Marshal Service] being successful is to have [marshals] on as many different flights that can be covered,” said Spencer Pickard, an air marshal in Las Vegas.

David Mackett, a commercial airline pilot and president of the Airline Pilots Security Alliance, said there is no alternative to defending aircraft with armed weapons, but that protection by marshals is too costly.

“With 30,000 flights a day, using air marshals, it would cost $14 billion per year and take a force the size of the U.S. Coast Guard — it simply can’t be done,” Mr. Mackett said.

Instead, he said Congress should revamp the Federal Flight Deck Officer program to encourage more pilots to seek weapons training.

“Using armed pilots, we could protect every flight in the sky for about $30 million a year because the pilots ask no compensation,” Mr. Mackett said.

The BALPA threatened to strike when Congress voted to allow American pilots to carry weapons when flying overseas, and the measure was withdrawn.

“BALPA is indeed still opposed to armed air marshals,” spokesman Keith Bill said last week.

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