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GUN GUARDS ALREADY ON BRUM FLIGHTS; Midland pilots' anger at US sky marshals.

Byline: CAROLINE WHEELER

ARMED US sky marshals are already secretly flying in and out of Birmingham International Airport on transatlantic passenger flights, the Sunday Mercury can reveal.

Thegunguards are believed to be working in teams of three and have been posing as passengers on board US-bound jets.

The move follows a series of terror alerts which have grounded flights from Heathrow and Glasgow airports.

Last week, two more British Airways flights to the US were cancelled amid fears of a new terror plot to bring down a passenger jet. One was the now infamous Flight 223 to Washington which has been grounded FIVE times in recent weeks. The other was Flight 263 to the Saudi Arabian capital of Riyadh.

Since December, nine BA flights from Heathrow have been grounded, along with one Continental Airlines service from Glasgow Airport.

Now armed US sky marshals have been drafted in to protect passengers and crew on daily Continental flights from Birmingham to New York -and to stop terrorists trying to launch an attack on America from the Midlands.

But the move has sparked outrage among some Midland pilots, who claim there has been a lack of consultation.

One pilot, who asked not to be named, said: 'I can confirm USbound flights from Birmingham are regularly carrying armed American sky marshals.

'The move has caused anger among airline staff because consultation between US and British governments and airline management has been practically non existent.

'The pilots that feel they should have been asked for their views because they are the people at the sharp end of the service should anything go wrong.

'It's also a matter of international law. When a pilot is in the air he is going through different airspace but he is still effectively king of his domain.

'The plane is his responsibility and he should have some influence over what is happening onboard, especially when firearms are involved.'

After the September 11 attacks the US Transportation and Security Administration (TSA) has hired thousands of sky marshals to prevent further hijackings.

Many recruits have trained with the SAS to hone close-quarter combat skills and are taught that they can shoot to kill when tackling hijackers -a prospect which terrifies pilots.

Last week a TSA spokeswoman confirmed that armed guards had been flying on international flights.

'There are thousands of federal air marshals flying on US and domestic carriers every day,' she said. 'When intelligence necessitates, we do ask that armed marshals fly on specific foreign flights. 'We would never say which flights our people are on in case it gets to the bad guys.'

British Airways and British Midland have previously said they were opposed to having armed guards on transatlantic flights.

West Midlands Police, Birmingham International Airport, the Home Office and Continental Airlines all refused to comment on what they called 'matters of national security'.

CAPTION(S):

ON ALERT: an armed officer at Birmingham International Airport, where sky mashals are already on flights; DAILY SERVICE: Continental fly from Birmingham to New York
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Publication:Sunday Mercury (Birmingham, England)
Date:Feb 22, 2004
Words:502
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