Aviation Security Bill First Reading


The Green Party is very disturbed that this bill allows for armed marshals on planes flying in and out of New Zealand. Those marshals are supposed to make plane travel safer in New Zealand, but in fact they introduce more danger. It is quite obvious that allowing people to use guns in the confined space of an aeroplane is dangerous. Innocent people are liable to be hit accidentally, and if a bullet goes through a cabin wall it could have disastrous consequences for those on board. A bullet hole could cause the cabin to depressurise and bring the plane down.

In the years since the United States put air marshals on planes, I do not think they have dealt with an actual terrorist. But air marshals themselves have terrorised many passengers. In 2005 one air marshal on an American Airlines flight shot and killed RigobertoAlpizar, a schizophrenic, despite pleas from his wife that he was a sick person, not a criminal. Mistakes like that are perhaps even more likely to occur now, when more and more people can qualify as terrorists — such as anyone having in their possession more than 100 millilitres of hairspray or shampoo.

The explanatory note of the bill talks about the danger of “liquid explosive disguised as a sports drink”. A Time magazine in 2004 had an article with the headline “Air marshals or cowboys?” detailing 600 cases of misconduct, including one air marshal who drew his gun on a man who had stolen his airport parking space and other marshals who had left their guns in the plane’s toilet, been on drugs, been drunk, etc. I do not think that airliners in the sky are the places for any sort of armed exchange. If there is any possible specific threat to a plane, that plane should not be let off the ground. That is the view of many of the pilots and why they have expressed concern about the proliferation of air marshals on planes. They do not want the airlines saying: “Oh, there’s been a threat to this flight, but rather than lose money by cancelling it, we’ll put an armed marshal on board.”

Do we want to gamble with the lives of New Zealanders by seeing an armed marshal as the answer to a specific security problem on a plane? I ask members not to take my word for it, but there is some counterbalancing of a specific threat to a plane, either cancelling it or putting an armed marshal on board. The explanatory note states that in the absence of air marshals we could have a situation where “Air New Zealand could sustain a loss of revenue associated with the cancelling of flights occasionally”.

Then there are other dangers with air marshals, like one identified in the British Guardian that the system could “play into the hands of well-trained hijackers who could identify the marshal and use his weapon themselves.” A variation of that scenario could be a hijacker, smartly dressed with the right crew-cut, claiming to be a marshal when the stewards or stewardesses were otherwise occupied, and go to the front of the plane. Who would know who was the marshal, or whether there was a marshal on the plane, or whether a marshal was a fake because marshals, as we know, are always in plain clothes. Masquerading is not very difficult. We read in this morning’s paper about two carjackers in Sydney who posed as police. They pulled a Sydney doctor over, asked for his ID, took his keys, robbed him, then locked him in the boot. So masquerading is not too difficult, and in an aeroplane it would be very dangerous.

Another reason why pilots have been worried about these measures is that their presence creates a problem as to who is in command — the pilot, who is supposed to be in charge traditionally, or the air marshal? In the bill the air marshal is allowed to take initiatives but is supposed to talk to the pilot at a later point, if he or she can. So there is a sort of joint security command on the plane, with the air marshal being in control of the cabin.

Just this month Dragonair pilots have complained about guns on flights within China. The crew have queried the need for guards armed with regular military-issue semi-automatic pistols and knives on Air China planes leased through the Hong Kong airline. The Hong Kong Airline Pilots Association wrote to the city’s aviation authority: “The carriage of armed personnel not responsible to the commander of the plane is the cause of particular unease. There appears to be no legal indemnity for the commander, should one of his security personnel take actions that result in the death of or injury to passengers.”

It is quite clear that this air marshal provision in the bill is being driven out of the United States, and perhaps Australia, and not from any identified extra security need in New Zealand. We should not be buckling to the Bush administration in its over-the-top implementation of the so-called war on terrorism. I think Mark Gosche in his speech admitted that the driving force is really what some other countries and Governments are doing. He used the term “the awful fact” that we have to abide by their views. I do not believe we have to. Instead of just abiding by such measures enforced from overseas, we should be aligning ourselves internationally with those people and Governments that are resisting this measure — in Europe and elsewhere — and not just going along with it.

It is clear that the Government is a bit embarrassed about the way this measure is coming in and about the nature of the measures, because it is using the little dodge of saying that it is going to pass this legislation but that the provisions relating to armed air marshals are not coming into effect until Cabinet ticks off the implementation of those clauses. As we know, Cabinet meets every Monday. It would be very easy for Cabinet at its next meeting, the following meeting, or whenever, simply to approve these measures. I do not think we can take that as a reassurance. Similarly, Cabinet can, overnight, put armed marshals on Air New Zealand planes under this legislation, simply by passing something through its Monday meeting.

What about the cost of these measures? I think that has to be borne in mind, because we all know that sometimes we want to go to, say, Australia and when we check out the cost we find that about half of it is for the extra security measures that are coming in all the time. On 19 August last year, the Guardian newspaper stated that there were now over 1,000 American air marshals, and they have a budget of $700 million. Now who, in the end, pays that money? It will be the people buying tickets on the airlines. So do we really want to go down that line?

Of course, there are some good points in the bill, such as having more secure areas set aside, and having proper checking procedures for people moving in and out of those secure areas. Maurice Williamson talked about the fact that someone who wanted to put a bomb on a plane would likely put it in baggage in one of those secure areas, rather than just marching on board with it and probably getting caught at the security check. So, although the bill contains some good measures, I think the issue of air marshals is so dangerous that the Greens will not support it.

We have to look at the whole question of security checking. Maurice Williamson talked about tweezers being taken off people. We almost turned the older generation — women, in particular – into terrorists by taking all their knitting needles off them for a whole period. We have to assess what checking we are doing in terms of the real risk. Perhaps we need statistics from the Government on how many real security incidents have occurred in our several years of intensive checking on aeroplanes. If there have not been any, then perhaps we need to downgrade the checking somewhat.

I do worry sometimes about the powers being granted under this bill for the security people to take what is called outer clothing off people, which has already been talked about in this debate. “Outer clothing” is subject to different interpretations, and it can lead to very embarrassing situations. We could go too far down the road of intrusive checking. Perhaps we should not give the powers to the security people but, rather, give a sort of back-up security power to the police who are in every airport. In really difficult situations, such search powers could be given to police who are called in, rather than give them willy-nilly to the security people, who are often with private security firms.