While federal air marshals, or FAMs, have been a fixture of the U.S. aviation security system since 1962, they've become a lot more visible since 9/11, when they became part of the Transportation Security Administration (TSA). If you think the daily routine of a FAM is like the one portrayed by actor Liam Neeson in Non-Stop, here are five myths that might change your mind.
1. The Federal Air Marshal Service (FAMS) is a law enforcement agency.
It depends upon whom you ask.
"The FAMS is a law enforcement agency," says John Casaretti, National President of the Air Marshal Association/CWA. "Its officers enforce violations of (certain federal codes), and have enhanced jurisdiction when an aircraft is in flight."
The violations include both U.S. criminal and penal codes, as well as transportation. But while air marshals are recruited, hired, and paid like law enforcement officers, some say that their powers are limited and that they are not law enforcement officers in the traditional sense.
"The job of a federal air marshal is nothing more than watching the cockpit door," says Clay Biles, a former Navy SEAL who spent five years as a federal air marshal and is the author of a book about FAMS called Unsecure Skies. "It's based on the 9/11 mentality of a terrorist hijack team assaulting the cockpit to assume control and fly the aircraft into a designated target as a weapon of mass destruction."
2. Federal air marshals receive timely intelligence reports.
It depends upon what you mean by timely.
"All FAMs are continually briefed on the most up-to-date intelligence reporting from around the world," says Michael D. Pascarella, Asst. Supervisory Air Marshal in Charge in the Public Affairs Office of the TSA. Not everyone agrees on what up-to-date really means, however.
"Flying FAMs do not receive classified intelligence reports specifically tailored to every mission, but instead rely upon general briefings from other agencies" says Casaretti "All of these generic reports essentially say that bad people are out there and could do bad things."
The truth is that FAMs receive relatively little useful information on potential threats to aviation, and the information they do receive is typically pubic reports, "relabeled as FOUO – For Official Use Only," claims Biles. He adds that most intelligence received by air marshals is received through the office "rumor mill."
3. Federal air marshals get involved in every dispute at the airport.
No, they don't. On Nov. 1, 2013, when TSA Officer Gerardo Hernandez was shot by a lone gunmen at Los Angeles International Airport and lay bleeding on the ground for more than half an hour and later died, Biles says that "a team of FAMs was less than 100 yards from the shooter yet failed to respond or engage the threat."
Despite the fact that air marshals typically carry a Sig Sauer P229 and have high shooting skills, trained as they are to fire in the close confines of an aircraft cabin, Biles claims their inaction was "mostly due to a mentality and unwritten policy that exists at the FAMS by upper management that tells air marshals not to get involved."
Casaretti clarifies the role of marshals in such situations, stating that "although they have full law enforcement powers, FAMs rarely get involved in airport disputes, as appropriate."
Instead, he says, "Local police officers are present to handle routine disturbances, and FAMs must maintain anonymity during missions."
That cover is a large part of who they are. But he also insists that "FAMs will always intervene in assaults, life-threatening situations and will address safety concerns."
In the air, it's a different story and a different directive. FAMs do get involved, but only after a flight crew has exhausted its ability to handle a situation.
4. Federal air marshals are on many flights.
Far from it. While a FAM could be on your next flight, don't bet on it.
"There are around 30,000 commercial flights per day over the U.S.," says Casaretti. "If you were to attempt to place a team of just two FAMs on each flight, it would require an agency of over 75,000 FAMs (accounting for training and days off). FAMs cover a very small percentage of commercial flights."
Which flight air marshals get on is determined by a computer program that assesses the probability of threat based on the aircraft, departure and destination cities, as well as the amount of fuel on board. This is the threat matrix that comes out of the missions operation center.
The TSA will not release statistics on the number of air marshals. TSA's Pascarella acknowledges only "many thousands." But Biles estimates that there are approximately 3,300 FAMs and of those, 34% are filling ground assignments in training, operations and management.
"We call them 'chair marshals,' riding out their career in management," says Biles. That leaves 66% of the workforce to perform in-flight security duties.
"If one accounts for vacations, sick leave, medical leave and days off, some air marshals working in operations have told me that this accounts for less than one half percent of all U.S.-flagged aircraft being covered by federal air marshals," he says.
These numbers lead Biles to conclude that "there is a large hole in aviation security for an agency that is supposed to be the last line of defense for U.S.-flagged aircraft."
In February, it was announced that six of the 24 FAMS offices were closing. The FAMS budget has been cut from $966 million to $805 million in the past three years. San Diego and Tampa will close by the end of 2014, Pittsburgh and Phoenix by June 2015, and Cleveland and Cincinnati by June 2016. The agency also froze hiring at the Las Vegas, Seattle, and Denver offices.
5. Federal air marshals travel incognito when they fly.
That's false, says Biles. FAMs are required to identify themselves to the gate crew and flight crew. But many don't like that approach and would prefer to fly undercover and unknown to everyone.
"It can be a disadvantage," says Biles. "The flight attendants might hand you a bigger bottle of water or do something else out of the ordinary that an observant person with bad intentions might notice."
Casaretti notes that the air marshals of most other countries fly incognito, adding that even then, "it's pretty evident when you walk down the aisle and see a guy who looks out of place, for example in good physical condition with a military haircut sitting in first class. According to the TSA, even if other passengers guess who the FAMs are, seeing them there promotes confidence in air travel."