War on Terror German Sky Marshals Feeling Grounded

Germany set up a unit of so-called "sky marshals" -- undercover agents who fly on planes to prevent terrorist attacks -- a month after 9/11. Two have spoken about their job and complain about their falling clout with airlines, which resist giving them seats near the cockpit.

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Germany set up a sky marshal unit after the shock of 9/11.
AP

Germany set up a sky marshal unit after the shock of 9/11.

The sky marshal remembers the first time he had problems. He was about to board a Lufthansa flight where his task was to thwart any terrorist attack. He had on a Hugo Boss suit, purchased from his clothing allowance so he wouldn't stand out in business class. A black Samsonite briefcase completed the image of a regular businessman.

But when he pulled his boarding pass out of the check-in machine, he saw that something had changed. He'd been seated far back in the aircraft. Lufthansa knew that a sky marshal belonged up front, close to the cockpit. It was the first time that the airline appeared to want to deny him -- an elite policeman in the air war against Osama bin Laden -- an expensive business-class seat.

The officer swore an oath of secrecy on becoming a sky marshal, so his name can't be revealed -- in fact no sky marshal has spoken about his work since the German government created the jobs in October 2001, shortly after 9/11. "Inspektion 6," the sky-marshal unit of the Federal Police Authority at Frankfurt airport, is the most secretive German police organization next to the elite GSG9 force.

But the situation for sky marshals has never been as depressing as it is now, says the officer and a one of his colleagues. Official figures claim that 200 police officers travel constantly on German passenger jets to prevent 9/11-style attacks with civilian aircraft. In fact, there are only 112 (as of Nov. 1 2006) -- and they aren't flying as much as they used to, according to the two officers.

The men say Lufthansa keeps cancelling first- or business-class tickets that would put them close to the cockpit -- and sometimes bumps them off flights entirely. "They don't want to give out expensive seats anymore," complains one of the officers.

The head of Germany's police union, Konrad Freiberg, finds the notion alarming. "If the price of a ticket is more important than a central security task, then the balance has shifted in the wrong direction," he said.

An elite force?

When the two officers applied for the job, they thought of the distant countries they could visit, places they might otherwise never see. The internal job advertisement promised applicants that after 24 months as an air marshal they would be able to pick their next position. "Make the decisive step for your future career," it said. The model in the ad wore an elegant suit and tie.

Sky marshals are specially trained, but so far they've never faced a hijacking.
AP

Sky marshals are specially trained, but so far they've never faced a hijacking.

But above all, the "sky marshals" sounded like an elite force. During selection at the Federal Police Academy in Lübeck, northern Germany, scores of applicants had failed to make the grade. The stair test proved especially tough: They had to run up from the cellar to the fourth floor carrying two suitcases and rembering numbers on the way up. Once they got to the top they were asked: Which number did you see on the ground floor, which on the third floor?

They also trained in close combat between rows of plane seats. A shot fired in an aircraft can hit lots of people. They practiced hitting the right person. They were issued weapons with soft bullets that could stop a man without tearing a hole in the fuselage.

After just six weeks, the officers were fit for duty. The authorities were in a hurry to get them airborne. Lufthansa needed them in case the nervous Americans decided to issue landing rights only to aircraft with sky marshals. The government needed them to implement anti-terror measures ordered by then-Interior Minister Otto Schily. And the passengers needed them so that they could feel a bit safer.

"We flew the maximum, 14 hours a day for two or three days in a row, then we got time off. A golden age," recalls one of the officers. He used to board flights with the feeling he was needed. He thought no one would ever worry about the cost. A second 9/11, after all, could cost airlines hundreds of millions of euros.

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