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Marshals prowl the skies abroad

Armed air marshals have been increasingly deployed by various countries since Sept. 11, 2001. While the tragic events of that date have been the catalyst for these countries, for others, such as China and Israel, in-air security has been an issue for a long while now.
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If you take a domestic flight in India, you might be seated next to an armed sky marshal and not even know it. Armed marshals have been increasingly deployed by various countries, including Canada, Australia and Germany. Recently, even gun-averse Britain announced plans for armed in-air security. While the tragic events of Sept. 11, 2001, have been the catalyst for these countries, for others such as India and Israel, on-air security has been considered a necessity for a long time.

“I was not aware of the presence of any armed personnel aboard my flight,” said Boman Irani, an Indian Airlines passenger who recently traveled by the Indian domestic carrier.

To airline security officials in India, that is a sign that the system is working. Since the 1999 hijacking of an Indian Airlines aircraft, sky marshals — trained commandos from the National Security Guard — have been regularly boarding Indian domestic airplanes incognito. The air marshals travel like normal passengers but are secretly armed with weapons, mainly small automatic guns and army “Rambo” knives, to thwart hijackers without harming passengers.

China, another country that has had an air marshal program for a long time, deploys on every flight certified officials who undergo strict training by the General Administration of Civil Aviation. According to a Taiwanese source, armed air marshals have been guarding the planes of China Airlines and Eva Air against crackpots, drug addicts and terrorists. Korean Air fielded sky marshals during the recent Asian Games but stopped soon after. All Korean air marshals were martial arts experts, ruling out the need for arms.

Vietnam Airlines and the German airline Lufthansa are other airlines that had on-air security in place ling before 9/11.


The terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, prompted many countries to take another look at their in-air security systems. Canada initially forbade armed marshals aboard commercial flights but post-9/11 allowed sky marshals aboard Air Canada planes going to Washington to meet tightened U.S. security rules. Now the program has been enlarged to cover selected flights of all airlines.

Air marshal Paul Marsh, a staff sergeant with the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, which runs the marshal program in Canada, said: “Based on security considerations and risk assessments, selected flights both in and out of Canada have plain-clothed armed marshals, and that has beefed up safety levels. The program is working very well, and we have no plans of discontinuing it.”

The program employs trained police officers who receive additional training to qualify to be aircraft protective officers. It is staffed by officers of the RCMP and other agencies who volunteer to be considered for the program.

Sensitivity to terrorist attacks is what has driven most countries to develop air marshal programs. A senior aviation official in India told the Indian media, “Our systems are being copied by other countries, because our aviation was targeted by terrorists much earlier.” India frequently employs mock drills such as fake hijackings to check for holes in the system.

Another nation to which terrorism is no stranger, Israel, has been deploying sky marshals aboard every flight of El Al, the national carrier, for around 30 years.

Most other countries, though, limit their air marshal programs to select routes. While Australia introduced air marshals on its domestic flights soon after 9/11, on international routes it has teamed only with Singapore to increase air safety between the two countries. Austrian Airlines has limited its armed sky marshals to all flights between Vienna and North America. Germany has extremely tight security on all flights to the Middle East but has no marshals on flights within Europe.

Britain announced in December that it was preparing “to place covert, specially trained armed police officers aboard U.K. civil aircraft.” While the logistics of the hiring process are still being worked out, plans are being made to cover both domestic and international flights.

According to Isaac Yeffet, former global security director for El Al Israel and a global authority on airport security, the choice of personnel for the program is of utmost importance for it to be effective.

“To become an air marshal, you have to be qualified to kill in less than 30 seconds without causing any damage to the aircraft or the other passengers, and that’s a skill that is best handled by someone who has spent some time in the special unit in the military, not a police officer.”

Lalita Aloor, an intern at, is a University of Florida graduate student.