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|December 11, 2001||
The Rediff Interview/Syed Shahnawaz Hussain
As Western airlines cope with the decrease in passenger traffic in the aftermath of the September 11 terrorist strikes, India's Aviation Minister Syed Shahnawaz Hussain says sky marshals will be deployed on Air-India's international routes for greater safety. Hussain told Onkar Singh that India had learnt from the hijacking of its own aircraft in the past, and taken all measures to prevent security lapses in the future. Excerpts:
After the September 11 attacks, what steps have you taken to ensure the safety of passengers travelling by air?
Prior to these attacks the security system in India has been of the highest order. It has now been decided that the secretary, civil aviation, will hold at least one security-related meeting every week and take steps according to the needs. We have decided to deploy the Central Industrial Security Force to protect the airports in India. Barring a few VVIPs who are exempted from frisking, every single individual will be frisked and undergo a mandatory security check. Even if he is chairman of the Airports Authority of India. We have also decided to install closed-circuit televisions at airports to keep a tab on potential troublemakers or hijackers.
The American government has introduced sky marshals on its domestic routes. What steps have you taken in this direction?
We have had our own experience in this regard and have had a series of hijackings. We had introduced sky marshals after the Kandahar hijacking. Earlier it was on selective routes. Now we have them on almost all routes. Even the private airlines have been told to allow National Security Guard commandos to travel as sky marshals.
Have you extended this system on the international routes as well?
The deployment of sky marshals on international routes is now under the active consideration of the Government of India. We wanted to execute this even earlier, but the international civil aviation body did not approve of it, hence sky marshals could not be stationed on international routes. But after September 11, the international body is also inclined to induct sky marshals for the safety of passengers.
In terms of money, what losses has Air-India suffered after September 11?
If we look at the losses of other international airlines, the losses suffered by Air-India are minimal. While major airlines have lost as much as 50-60 per cent [of their] passengers, Air-India has lost only 5-6 per cent. Which in actual terms means no losses at all. Initially people were reluctant to travel by air. But after a week or so the passenger traffic was back to normal. Twenty-two thousand passengers are now travelling by Air-India [every week].
But you have closed your offices in a number of countries.
We have never denied that we have shut down our offices in a number of countries. These offices have been closed in countries where Air-India does not operate. To save money, it was decided that Air-India should have offices only in those countries, which are linked to our routes.
What is the feedback on the deployment of sky marshals?
I have been talking to a lot of passengers who are frequent travellers by air. The feedback is positive and people tell me that with the NSG commandos around, they feel far more secure then they would do otherwise.
How do you decide on the routes which require sky marshals on a particular day?
This is a closely guarded secret and is decided only an hour in advance. It is then that the crew on that route is informed.
Is it true that the international civil aviation body has commended the Indian airport security system?
This indeed is a matter of pride for us that the international civil aviation body has commended our airport security system. We have declared a number of airports sensitive and from time to time I carry out surprise checks to ensure that the security system is fully functional and alert. I am happy to tell you that on all occasions I found the security was as tight as it should be.
Are you planning to buy new aircraft?
Only last week we received a letter from the finance ministry telling us that they have lifted restrictions on the purchase of new aircraft. Indian Airlines needs new aircraft. We will shortly hold a meeting to decide how many to buy.
What about Air-India?
We are getting two more aircraft for Air-India on lease. If need be, we will buy more aircraft.
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