CAMPAIGN: Pilots turn diplomats in security strategy - Issues Management

Campaign: BALPA resists Sky Marshals Client: British Airline Pilots' Association PR team: Campaign Communications Timescale: Ongoing from December 2003 Budget: £9,000 from agency retainer

When the US government announced in December that airlines without armed guards - Sky Marshals - aboard would soon be banned from American airports and airspace, the UK government agreed to put Sky Marshals on passenger planes out of the UK.

Airlines and pilots were concerned that this decision compromised passenger safety and threaten pilots' position as commander of their aircraft.

The British Airline Pilots' Association (BALPA), a trade union and professional association representing 8,050 of the UK's 9,200 professional pilots, moved swiftly to voice its concern.

Objectives

To have the Government overturn its decision and back BALPA members' refusal to fly any plane with a Sky Marshal on board. Once, a few days into the campaign, it became clear that this refusal could mean a ban on flights to the US, which could cripple the aviation industry, to generate an agreement or protocol between pilots, airlines and the UK government on the circumstances under which Sky Marshals would fly.

Strategy and Plan

BALPA made passenger safety the centrepiece of its campaign against Sky Marshals - guaranteeing widespread media coverage in the security-conscious, post-9/11 environment.

British pilots were the first in the world to oppose their own government on this issue, which was news in itself, but the PR team was aware that the initial public reaction was bewilderment, given the aim was improving air safety.

The message from BALPA's spokesmen - general secretary Jim McAuslan and chairman Mervyn Granshaw - to consumer and travel trade media was 'Once a terrorist is in the sky, it's too late'. The key to improving security in the air, they argued, was to improve checks on the ground.

'No protocol, no fly' became BALPA's slogan. Virgin Atlantic signed a protocol, and talks began with British Airways.

As public awareness of the pilots' concerns increased, and British politicians began to express doubts about the US government's demands, BALPA sought a meeting with Secretary of State for Transport Alistair Darling, which became a media event in itself.

It obtained agreement from Darling that a protocol for the use of Sky Marshals should be established.

The PR team then encouraged media speculation that even with a protocol in place, Sky Marshals would never actually be deployed. Airlines declared they would cancel any flight if there was a specific threat, and the UK government has said Sky Marshals will only be put on flights perceived to be at risk.

BALPA also approached the Irish government with its anti-marshal message, given that Ireland currently holds the EU presidency.

Added weight for BALPA's calls for better ground checks at airports came with the discovery at Heathrow on 13 January of a passenger from the US allegedly carrying bullets, and gave another chance to comment in the media.

Measurement and Evaluation

BALPA's opposition to Sky Marshals was covered by all the UK nationals, including The Guardian, the Evening Standard and the Daily Mail, which published pro-BALPA editorials. Coverage was also achieved on radio and television in the UK, at national and regional level. The story was picked up by major European broadcasters, such as RAI in Italy, and in the US was carried by CNN, CBS, ABC and national newspapers. Travel magazines covered the issue, along with titles such as Time and the Bangkok Post.

Results

BALPA's position has been endorsed by 15 pilot associations in Europe, with Sweden, Norway, Denmark and Portugal declaring that they will not, under any circumstances, fly Sky Marshals.

The Government has agreed that the captain of an aircraft will remain in command of a plane at all times, with Sky Marshals subject to their authority.

BALPA and the Government are still working on a protocol, which the association hopes will be presented to the US for introduction worldwide.

The International Federation of Air Line Pilots Associations is planning a summit and the Irish government has pledged a goal of its EU presidency will be to reach a European consensus on how Sky Marshals will be used.

The Guardian transport correspondent Andrew Clark said BALPA was accessible and knowledgeable, and 'were the only significant organisation talking about it, so was very useful'.

Press Association industrial correspondent Alan Jones added that 'general secretary Jim McAuslan was made available, and interviewing the top man is one of the things we always want'.

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