Air marshals

When the US has intelligence about a possible terrorist threat, it has every right to demand that foreign airliners headed for the United States carry air marshals or other law enforcement officers onboard. The total freedom of air carriers from other countries to make their own security rules ends when their planes are bound for American airspace. Tom Ridge, the homeland security secretary, made the correct decision when he issued an emergency order to that effect after six Los Angeles-bound Air France flights, which do not carry marshals, were cancelled because of terrorism concerns.

The United States greatly expanded its own air marshal program in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks, but even today there are no marshals on most flights.

The requirement that foreign carriers fly undercover guards (a number of them already do) should be invoked by US sparingly, as part of close cooperation, particularly intelligence-sharing, between governments. The point is that terrorists planning to take over an aircraft should not be able to assume automatically that certain non-American airlines are particularly vulnerable.

There was a time when the aircraft itself was terrorists’ main target, and flagship carriers from certain countries could feel a relative degree of immunity. Indeed, in the aftermath of the tragic bombing of a Pan Am 747 over Scotland in 1988, the perception that crossing the Atlantic on non-American carriers was safer hastened that airline’s demise.

Nowadays, in a post-9/11 world, we are painfully aware that terrorists may seek to take over an airplane to use as a missile. The aircraft has become the weapon, and groups like Al Qaeda would feel little compunction about commandeering a foreign carrier’s plane, if it could easily do so, to attack American targets.

The New York Times