The cover of a sky marshal on board an Air India flight to Kathmandu was blown when a cabin crew revealed his identity to passengers after an argument.
The national carrier confirmed the security breach, which took place sometime in February, saying the steward had been taken off international routes and his duties curtailed.
“There was some issue between the cabin crew and the sky marshal. This is a sensitive security issue… the concerned cabin crew has been sent for refresher training,” an airline spokesperson said.
Sky marshals are armed plainclothes security officers who travel on passengers jets. In India they are drawn from the elite National Security Guard, an anti-terror force also equipped and trained in anti-hijacking duties.
These security officers are deployed on random basis on domestic as well as international flights.
“In a major slip up, the cabin crew in-charge let out the sky marshal’s identity to passengers during an on-board announcement,” said a senior AI official, who did not wish to be named.
The identity of a sky marshal is only known to the crew and has to be kept secret and confidential. “Under no circumstances, a sky marshal’s identity can be made public. In case of a hijack, he is the only line of defence between passengers and hijackers,” another officer said.
The steward, sources said, had been stripped off the duties of cabin crew in-charge for six months and won’t fly international during the same period.
“We are informed in advance about the sky marshal’s seat number. As he is armed, select airport security officials are also aware of his identity,” a senior pilot said.
India started flying sky marshals after an Indian Airlines plane on way to Delhi from Kathmandu was hijacked by Harkat-ul-Mujahideen, a Pakistan-based terror group, on December 24, 1999. The week-long drama, which saw the plane being flown to different cities, left a passenger dead. It ended with India releasing three dreaded terrorists and flying them to Kandahar in Taliban-controlled Afghanistan.