American air demands cause foreign friction

Thursday, January 8, 2004

LONDON -- Fears of a new airborne terrorist attack have brought heightened tensions, grounded flights -- and created turbulence for U.S.-European relations.

Some European nations have balked at the United States' tough new aviation security measures, which include armed guards on aircraft and preflight scrutiny of passenger lists. Airlines, hit by rising security demands, want governments to handle part of the cost.

"There are tensions within Europe on how to handle U.S. requests," said Philip Butterworth-Hayes, editor of Jane's Aircraft Components. "Politically, it's a complete nightmare for Europe."

Since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, many airlines around the world have acceded to U.S. requests, installing bulletproof cockpit doors on aircraft and agreeing to share passenger lists with U.S. authorities.

But for some, the demand for armed sky marshals on flights to the United States was a step too far.

While a European Union-wide aviation safety agency is being established, each member country has been free to take its own position on sky marshals.

The Irish government, which took over the rotating presidency of the European Union on Jan. 1, said Wednesday it was organizing a meeting of EU aviation chiefs in Brussels, Belgium, next week to discuss the U.S. request.

On Dec. 29, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security announced that airlines would be required to place armed law enforcement officers on flights to the United States "where necessary."

The announcement came after U.S. authorities raised their terrorism alert to orange, the second-highest level, and increased security surrounding international flights. More than a dozen flights to the United States on British Airways, Aeromexico and Air France have been canceled or delayed since New Year's Eve because of security fears.

British Transport Secretary Alistair Darling called the deployment of sky marshals "responsible and prudent" and said passengers would have to get used to increased security. France and Germany, alongside nations such as Canada and Australia, also agreed to the U.S. request, with Germany saying it has had sky marshals on some flights for more than two years.

But civil aviation authorities in Denmark, Sweden, Finland and Portugal all said they would not allow armed marshals to fly and would instead cancel flights if there was a strong suspicion of a planned attack.

Denmark's Transportation Minister, Flemming Hansen, told the Politiken newspaper that "putting armed guards on passenger planes is the same as saying that the terrorists have won."

Package tour operator Thomas Cook, which operates charter flights between London and Orlando, Fla., also said it would not accept sky marshals, and pilot organizations in Britain, Spain and other countries expressed strong reservations.

"We do not accept that it is necessary to introduce armed officials on to aircraft," Conor Nolan, director of safety for the Irish Airline Pilots Association, was quoted as saying by the Irish Examiner newspaper. "The aircraft should be the last place for security measures. They should have taken place on the ground before takeoff."

Aviation expert Butterworth-Hayes said the trans-Atlantic disagreement "partly comes from differences of culture, for example on the issue of arming pilots. The U.S. is much more bullish about that."

Cost is also a factor. Heightened security measures since Sept. 11, 2001, have cost major airlines between $90 million and $180 million, according to aviation analyst Nick van den Brul of BN Paribas.

Sky marshals are not the first American demand to have met a mixed reception.

In December, after months of negotiations, the European Union agreed to share flight passenger lists with U.S. authorities. But the EU won concessions to comply with European privacy rules, including an agreement to hold the data for 3 1/2 years rather than the 50 years originally proposed.

And on Wednesday the Australian airline Qantas bridled at a U.S. request that it discourage passengers from gathering in groups during flights to America. Australian Transport Minister John Anderson described the request as "a little bit hard to handle."

Darrin Kayser, a spokesman for the U.S. Transportation Security Administration, said Wednesday that passengers were free to wait in line for airplane bathrooms. But he said the agency had asked all airlines flying to the United States to discourage people from congregating on planes, possibly by making announcements to that effect before takeoff.

Other nations have been irked by the U.S. introduction of fingerprint scanning and photographing for visitors from all but 27 mostly European nations. Last week, Brazil began fingerprinting and photographing arriving Americans in retaliation.

On Tuesday, the Brazilian foreign minister met with the U.S. ambassador to ask that Brazilians be exempted from fingerprinting and that they "be treated with dignity," according to a government statement.

David Learmount, an aviation expert with Flight International magazine, said U.S. authorities would have to accept a compromise on some of its security demands.

The effort against terrorism should be "about people working together, not America bulldozing its way around, telling everyone what to do," he said.

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