Air marshals are trained on how to shoot inside a plane. / guardia civil

Spain's air marshals, plain-clothes police working to keep you safe on national and international flights

They appear to be passengers like any other, but are actually armed, highly-trained Guardia Civil officers who could even fly and land the plane if needed

JOSÉ ANTONIO GUERRERO MADRID.

You won’t be aware of it, but the passenger in the aisle seat next to you on the plane, the one in well-worn jeans who spent most of the journey reading a novel, could save your life if necessary. Likewise the young woman further back, who was listening to music on her earpieces, was there for your protection.

They are air marshals, plain-clothes Guardia Civil officers who have undergone special training to protect passengers in case of incident. They went through security just like everyone else, boarded the aircraft separately and took their seats without anyone noticing their carefully-disguised bullet-proof vests and the loaded guns they were carrying.

Once the plane lands and everyone has disembarked, they can relax for a while, change their clothing to take on a different persona and then board another plane back to Spain, staying alert the whole time.

All types of flights

These officers are from the Unesev service: the National Air Marshal Flight Safety Unit. It is a recent introduction in Spain, although the system has been used in countries such as the USA, Canada, Germany and Switzerland for years, and they operate discreetly on domestic, European and transatlantic flights.

They are trained in the top elite corps and are skilled in personal defence and precision shooting in confined environments such as a fully occupied aircraft. They are also able to take control of a plane and land it should it be necessary.

SUR spoke to one of them. Obviously he was not going to give his real name, but let’s call him Ángel. He is in his late 30s, has a family, speaks several languages, is in “great shape” and was deployed in specialist Guardia Civil units before joining the Unesev.

He explains that they are trained to operate in highly critical circumstances. “You have to be fast and effective, because you are 10,000 metres up in the air, in a tubular capsule and you need to keep a clear mind about what you have to do and what not to do in each case. Thanks to our training, which is continual, we can resolve the most difficult situations,” he says.

These officers are also trained to spot unusual behaviour and keep an eye on conflictive passengers, if necessary. “The priority is to guarantee the safety of the plane and the passengers. If we see someone who becomes aggressive or has too much to drink and creates problems, we would act if the cabin crew couldn’t handle it themselves. So far that situation has not occurred, but in fact conflictive passengers are more common than most people realise,” he said.

Never alone

The officers are never on their own. Even in the air, they maintain the Guardia Civil tradition of working in pairs. In fact, the number on board depends on the journey. In terms of risk, a flight between Madrid and Malaga is not deemed as risky as one to hotspots such as Bogotá, Istanbul or Tel Aviv, for example. Intelligence information is taken into account when deciding how many officers should be deployed on a flight.

The air marshals have all trained at the best centres in the world, including the USA, Canada and Israel.

And if everything appears to be fine on a flight, do they relax? “No, it may not look like it but we are working the whole time. You look out for certain things which could affect security, you discreetly watch how people behave and everyone who moves about on the plane, you monitor their attitude, what they do. We always act as if something is going to happen,” he said.

When travelling by plane you never know who might be sitting next to you. But it is a relief to know that it could be a good guy, not a bad one.