msnbc.com staff and news service reports
updated 1/8/2004 1:20:37 PM ET 2004-01-08T18:20:37

Dutch pilots weighed into the debate over placing armed air marshals on flights on Wednesday, with the national aviators union saying that it is vehemently opposed to the security measure but remains in discussions with the KLM airline and aviation authorities on the issue.

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“We remain against having firearms on board and we will make that quite clear,” Henk de Vries, chairman of the VNV union, was quoted as saying in an article posted on his union’s Web site.

Union officials did not return calls seeking further comment.

Demands by the United States to have armed air marshals on U.S.-bound planes has sparked controversy among airlines and regulators, with critics charging the introduction of guns to the passenger cabin would make air travel more dangerous and heighten fears of flying. South African Airways and Thomas Cook Airlines have said they would rather cancel flights than comply with demands.

The governments of Denmark, Portugal and Sweden also have opposed the measure.

Four European nations say they will comply
Britain, France, the Netherlands and Hungary have said they will comply. Italy and Poland have yet to make a decision. Germany, Austria and the Czech Republic already use marshals on some flights.

Ireland, which holds the European Union's rotating presidency, will call a meeting of member nations' aviation chiefs next week in Brussels to discuss the U.S. demand. “Ireland will be using its EU presidency position to establish the views of all EU member states (on this issue),” a spokeswoman for the Irish transport ministry said on Wednesday.Dutch flag carrier KLM confirmed it was still in talks with the pilots’ union and the Dutch authorities about using armed guards on board its aircraft.

“We have always been positive about using air marshals and the Dutch Justice Ministry also wants them on board. But we are still in talks with them and the pilots and we hope to present a joint stance by the end of this week or early next week,” said KLM spokesman Frank Houben.

Airline: Compliance almost unavoidable
He said using air marshals would be almost unavoidable if the U.S. authorities made this a rigorous condition for allowing airlines to fly to U.S. destinations.

“In that case you would only have the options to stop flying there or comply with the demands. For KLM, trans-Atlantic flights are very important, also because of our cooperation with (U.S. group) Northwest Airlines which is one of the most profitable alliances in the airline industry,” he said.

Houben said KLM, which is in the process of being taken over by Air France, has used plainclothes security personnel on some flights in the past but these were unarmed.

These unarmed guards were used on services to destinations such as the Dutch Antilles, where flights have been upset regularly in the past by rowdy behavior from passengers under the influence of alcohol or drugs.

The Bush administration won a reluctant ally Tuesday when a British pilots’ union said it would accept the use of armed sky marshals.

“We still have a fundamental problem about having ballistics in a pressurized cabin,” Jim McAuslan, general secretary of the British Air Line Pilots Association, told British Broadcasting Corp. radio shortly before meeting with Transportation Secretary Alistair Darling. “But given that that’s going to happen then we have to look at ... the consequences of that and how do pilots and professionals minimize the risks involved.”

British government's position
The British government has said it would put sky marshals on flights “where appropriate” and that it was boosting security on the ground and in the air for trans-Atlantic flights in response to the heightened security alert in America.

The use of sky marshals is one of numerous steps the U.S. government has taken since raising its terror threat assessment level to "orange," or high, on Dec. 21. Officials said the move was taken based on intelligence indicating that al-Qaida operatives could attempt to hijack a U.S.-bound flight from Europe or Mexico and use it for a terrorist attack.

In one of the most visible signs of the stepped-up security, at least 15 U.S.-bound flights have been canceled since the alert level was raised. Numerous other international flights have been delayed — some for several hours or more — when protracted security checks could not be completed in time for takeoff.

U.S. officials have said that they have not uncovered any specifics on the plans for attacks, but France's justice minister  said Wednesday that French authorities are searching for a passenger who did not turn up for a scheduled Air France flight on Christmas Eve.

The flight was one of six Air France flights between Paris and Los Angeles on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day that were canceled following security talks between U.S. and French officials. Security concerns also have focused on British Airways daily Flight 223 from London's Heathrow Airport to Washington's Dulles International Airport, which was canceled twice last week and has regularly been delayed since then. Media reports have said that intelligence also has suggested that flight might be a terrorist target.

In addition to requiring airlines to carry marshals on selected flights, U.S. authorities Monday began fingerprinting and photographing foreigners arriving at more than 100 airports.

MSNBC.com's Mike Brunker and Reuters contributed to this report.

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