The reported scaling back of sky marshals on international flights can’t come soon enough for some flight attendants.

They know when the armed marshals are on board and where they are seated. And they know when they go through the charade of checking their boarding passes that they are greeting the man or woman who may be their executioner.

They are meeting the people trained to shoot straight through any threat to the security of a flight, even though the pilots are sealed behind reinforced doors no hijacker has any chance of breaching.

Sky marshals are a part of the theatre of absurdity and dishonesty that clogs air transport with ineffectual but feelgood rituals concerning identity, liquids and gels, traces of explosives on shoes (which can mean chemical traces from copying machines or farm fertilisers) and similar.

The special pleading that led to today’s report in The Australian comes not long after the airports began lobbying for the winding down of the previous government’s commitment to 100% screening of air cargo and luggage by claiming that they were unachievable and a cost burden to boot.

The chairman of Sydney Airports Corporation, Max Moore-Wilton, has gone public on several occasions criticising universal security screening and the toughness of current quarantine standards. Sky marshals fly on a tiny fraction of domestic flights and a modest fraction of international flights, rising sharply on flights on all airlines between Australia and the US.

This softly, softly winding down of air travel security is not unique to Australia. It is happening in Europe and is increasingly discussed if not acted upon in America.

When a religious nutter tried to hijack a Qantaslink flight between Melbourne and Launceston on 28 May, 2003, by attacking a flight attendant with sharpened wooden stakes concealed in his clothes, passengers leapt from their seats to help the other flight attendant subdue him.

The plane was back on the ground in Melbourne, surrounded by police, within minutes of the attack. Had there been two sky marshals on board, it would not have made it back to the airport any sooner, but there could have been a pile of corpses on the floor, including the two flight attendants.

Sky marshals do not conduct judicial inquiries into who is a civilian hero, and who is a villain. They don’t ask hijackers holding a flight attendant to stand aside on so they can shoot them. They shoot the threat to oblivion in a split second.

Another well videoed incident was the attempted assassination of the President of Afghanistan, Hamid Karzai, in September 2002. The first person to die was the young boy who spotted the would be killer and tackled him to the ground as he approached the president’s car.

Sky marshals are a useless, dishonest folly in the view of some people in the airline business, and their being wound down if not abolished would be another sign that common sense is coming back into the security and risk assessment equations.