India to utilize more sky marshals

The government on Saturday decided to increase the strength of sky marshals so that they could be put on more domestic flights in different sectors. This comes in the wake of last week's hijack drama which resulted in the emergency landing of the Indigo flight 6E-334 at Delhi airport.

Security officials who had been active during the post-landing drill following the hijack threat last Sunday believed that if there were sky marshals on board the Indigo flight, the situation would have been different and the passengers wouldn't have gone through the trauma for over three hours.

Currently, sky marshals - specially trained anti-hijack armed commandos of the National Security Guard (NSG) - are deployed in certain identified sensitive sectors like those in Jammu and Kashmir and the northeast.

Sky marshals are also deployed on Air India flights to Kabul, Lahore, Dhaka and Kathmandu on a regular basis. But domestic flights - private as well as Air India - on other sectors get the commandos only on a random basis, leaving those routes vulnerable most of the time.

The decision to increase the strength of sky marshals was taken in a special meeting chaired by cabinet secretary K M Chandrashekhar. The meeting was held to review the response mechanism of various agencies involved in aviation security in case of emergencies.

It was decided that NSG - which has nearly 200 commandos to be deployed exclusively as sky marshals - would soon increase the strength of its "52 Special Action Group (SAG)" so that 200 more commandos could be spared for on-air anti-hijacking duties. All the commandos of the 52 SAG are drawn from Army and are specially trained for neutralizing hijackers in flight.

"More international flights will also be catered to by the sky marshals in due course. It will, however, take time as it involves certain agreements between two countries that would allow armed security personnel on board and on foreign soil," said an official.

Secretaries in the ministries of home, defence, civil aviation and external affairs and senior officers of DGCA, CISF, IB and NSG attended Saturday's meeting.

Since the post-landing drill on Sunday witnessed substantial delay on the part of the NSG which opened the door of the Indigo aircraft nearly one-and-a-half hours after being positioned there, officials also decided to update the Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs) of all the concerned agencies for faster and effective response.

"We learnt that NSG took time because it strictly followed the SOPs prescribed for its commandos during such a situation. Keeping that in mind, it has now been decided to update the SOPs so that it gives room for some flexibility during an emergency," said a senior officer who attended the meeting.

In order to fine-tune such an exercise in the wake of the updated SOPs, it was also decided that all civil airports across the country would have regular emergency drills and briefing programmes for all concerned agencies to handle emergency situations better.