- The Washington Times - Sunday, January 18, 2004

The United States this week will begin talks with European countries aimed at working around their objections to the deployment of armed sky marshals on trans-Atlantic passenger flights, U.S. and European officials said.

The discussions were announced after a meeting Friday in Brussels between a senior U.S. security official and the civil aviation chiefs of 25 European countries.

The United States has backed away from its insistence on armed marshals in the wake of the holiday season terror alert that snarled thousands of airline passengers in delays and cancellations and caused consternation among European governments.

Asa Hutchinson, undersecretary for border and transportation security at the Department of Homeland Security, said lessons were learned from the holiday alert.

“We can improve and we will work to make communication better,” Mr. Hutchinson told reporters in Brussels after Friday’s hourlong meeting.

In the face of concern from many European nations, Mr. Hutchinson agreed that U.S. authorities would consider the whole range of security measures employed by other nations on flights thought to be especially at risk of terrorist attack rather than insisting on the presence of armed marshals.

“We don’t have a blanket policy that we are going to cancel or ban flights because a country does not implement one security measure,” he said. “We look at all the security measures in place to determine whether that flight can travel safely.”

One official of the European Union who spoke on condition of anonymity said Mr. Hutchinson “was in a listening, open mood. He heard our concerns. … He ate a little bit of humble pie.”

“He wasn’t backing down,” the European official said of Mr. Hutchinson’s statements. “He was opening up.”

Mr. Hutchinson continued to emphasize that the United States would remain the arbiter of what was adequate security on flights headed for its shores. “If we believe there is a gap in … security in which safety of passengers is jeopardized, then we reserve the right to say that flight cannot enter our airspace,” he said.

Mr. Hutchinson said there was a “sense of urgency” to agree on bilateral aviation safety protocols.

“I believe the specific threats we dealt with last month will occur again,” he said.

Over the Christmas and New Year’s holidays, with the American aviation system under the threat of a terrorist attack, dozens of flights were delayed, canceled or subject to extra security measures, including escorts from armed U.S. fighters. Just before New Year’s, the United States amended its civil aviation regulations to deny access to its airspace to flights not carrying armed law enforcement officers where U.S. authorities deemed them necessary.

“The decision came rather suddenly … slightly out of the blue,” said Anthony Gooch, spokesman for the European Commission in Washington, “and caused a certain amount of concern.”

European officials said Mr. Hutchinson had asked to attend Friday’s meeting, a previously scheduled meeting of European aviation chiefs, following opposition to the rule change from a majority of European nations.

Speaking for many, Lars Lovkvist, the director of Finland’s Air Transport Authority, said Friday, “If there really is a grave and serious threat, we would cancel individual flights and not use sky marshals.”

“In some ways this is just a culture clash,” said the EU official. “Europeans tend to feel safer when there are no guns around. Americans tend to feel safer when there are. I’m not sure how you resolve that.”

• Gareth Harding in Brussels contributed to this report.

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