British Airways chief executive Rod Eddington today gave his views on the impact on aviation of the latest heightened security alerts in the US.
Writing in today’s Financial Times, Mr Eddington said: “Much has changed in aviation since I first joined the industry in the late 1970s. My first priority on each day is unchanged, though. Keep the aircraft safe.
“Having spent my career adhering to that mantra, you would understand why I and my colleagues at British Airways take particular interest in the current debate on sky marshals.
“My starting position has always been that guns and planes don’t mix.
“However, I accept that in the current climate an armed police officer, correctly deployed, on board a particular flight might have a place in aviation security.
“Our position at British Airways is that if indeed security on a particular flight could be enhanced by the onboard presence of an armed police officer, we would be happy to accept that fact.
“Equally, we maintain that if we have any cause for concern regarding the safety or security of a particular flight, we would simply not operate that service. We demonstrated that with the recent cancellations.
“To meet the high standards we set ourselves, the effective and safe deployment of an armed sky marshal has to meet exacting criteria.
The key issue for us is relatively simple, but with potentially complex solutions
It is that everything about the airport security we operate currently is designed to keep guns off commercial aircraft.
So we now have to find a way of getting them on board safely and, crucially, in a way which would not compromise the covert nature of a sky marshal’s deployment. For obvious reasons, it would not be appropriate to air the relevant issues and solutions.
Within British Airways, a team of senior managers from our flight operations and security
departments are drawing up a protocol for deployment of sky marshals which we believe
will work for our passengers and crew. It must also, of course, be acceptable to the Department for Transport.
“I have to say I have been impressed with how transport secretary Alistair Darling has handled what is undoubtedly a thorny issue. He has taken a measured and mature view and shown real leadership while under some pressure to allay the concerns raised by both the aviation industry and the general public. The issues raised with him by Jim McAuslan, general secretary of the pilots’ union BALPA, echoed broad concerns across the industry.
“The recent heightened state of alert in the USA has thrown up some interesting lessons. For security reasons, throughout last week the passenger list of one of our Washington flights, the BA223, had to be checked by the US authorities. It was an extension of the APIS (Advance Passenger Information System) regulations which are now a requirement of the US for all overseas carriers. It resulted in a daily delay of up to three hours for the passengers on this flight after they had boarded the aircraft.
“I am a fan of vigilance, and British Airways makes no apology for its strict security measures. Our customers expect it and recognise it is part of what BA stands for. But I am not a fan of needless bureaucracy. Last week`s delays were due, in part, to the fact that a total of 22 different agencies claimed a reason to check one passenger list. Without diminishing the thoroughness of the checks in any way, we are now working with the US government to streamline this process for the future without compromising its thoroughness.
“Our customers be they from the UK, Europe, US or elsewhere, have reacted with remarkable stoicism to these latest developments. Rather than rail against the extra checks, they have been reassured by them. In addition, we have seen little impact on forward bookings.
Passengers tell me they are encouraged by what they see on board our planes. We were the first airline to install locked, reinforced cockpit doors and CCTVs linking the cockpit and cabin. Our crew are trained to cope with any eventuality. Our additional annual security spend since 9/11 is £100 million and rising as we find innovative ways to further minimise any possible risk to our aircraft and passengers.
Some of the recent security alerts have been a mixture of the serious and surreal.
Back in October 2002, the RAF scrambled two Tornado fighter jets to Heathrow when it was feared our incoming service from Baltimore was being subjected to a hijack attempt.
The alert came after the captain reported to Air Traffic Control that a passenger had heard two agitated men on board have the following conversation:
First male: “Is this the right time?”
Second male: “We`ve been planning this for six months, let`s do it.”
First male: “Sure?”
Second male: “Let`s do it now.”
“A nervous flyer, sitting behind the men overheard them, became alarmed, alerted the crew and the incident escalated.
In fact the two men were a father and son from the USA debating the merits of a family reunion with a long-lost aunt in England. The father thought it was a great idea, the son wasn`t so convinced. Cue hijack alert. Some red faces ensued, but all ended well.
An over-reaction? With hindsight, of course it was. Do we want to under-react to a security alert? Absolutely not.
As we all tackle with the new security realities in aviation, I know that safety and security remains our first priority. I sit comfortably with that. So should the customers on any British Airways flight.”