November 13, 2018

Talking Transportation: Federal Air Marshals? Worthwhile or Worthless?

Do you feel safe when you fly?

Forget about exploding jet engines, cracked aircraft windows and clear-air turbulence.  What about terrorists?

We haven’t seen a domestic case of terrorists attacking jetliners in years, thanks to increased scrutiny of passengers by the TSA, the Transportation Security Administration.  From the moment you book a flight, you are being screened.  If you’re on the “No Fly List”, you’d better switch your travel plans to Amtrak or MegaBus.  And when you get to the airport, get ready for a full pat-down search.

But airlines’ last line of defense against terrorists is FAM, the Federal Air Marshal Service.  Created in 1961 after a spate of skyjackings to Cuba, the air marshal program, now administered by the TSA, has grown to 3000 marshals and an $800 million budget.

But the program is now in trouble.

The Government Accounting Office last year reported that even TSA could not demonstrate that FAM is effective or even served as a deterrent to bad guys.  Since the program was accelerated (from 33 marshals before 9/11), air marshals have not made a single terrorist arrest, though the armed, undercover agents have thwarted several “disruptive passenger” incidents.

In April, a deranged woman on a Delta flight from London to Salt Lake City jumped on an air marshal who had been supervising her after she overturned a drink cart.  She was cuffed (by another marshal) for the duration of the flight and faces a year in prison.

In December 2005, air marshals shot and killed a man as he ran off an American Airlines flight in Miami, claiming he had a bomb.  Ignoring calls to “stop” and “get down”, the shooting was declared “legally justified” in a 46-page follow-up report.  The man had no explosives, but was found to have missed his meds for a bipolar condition.

Even with 3000 marshals, there is no way the TSA can cover the 42,000 daily flights in the US.  There were no marshals on shoe-bomber Richard Reid’s (2001) or underwear bomber Umar Farouk’s (2009) trans-Atlantic flights.

One of the criticisms of FAM is that they waste their time policing “flights to nowhere” on regional 50-seat aircraft when it’s the longer, bigger jets that need attention.

FAM is also sullied by low morale and allegations of alcohol abuse.  Between 2002 and 2012  air marshals were arrested 148 times and charged with 5000 cases of misconduct including 1200 cases of lost equipment — including their weapons.

If you travel for a living, imagine their job.  They can’t sleep in-flight, suffer from the same delays as the rest of us and have to be ready on seconds’ notice to discharge their weapons at 30,000 feet.

Some marshals say FAM’s problems are due to its ties with TSA.  They suggest the service would be better off as part of Customs and Border Protection or the FBI.

But Robert MacLean, an air marshal fired in 2006 after disclosing that the service was cutting back on coverage of overnight flights, calls FAM “security theater serving absolutely no purpose other than showing they (TSA) are doing something”.  (MacLean was finally taken back into FAM after a 10-year legal fight that went all the way to the Supreme Court.)

Jim Cameron

About the author: 

Jim Cameron is founder of The Commuter Action Group, and a member of the Darien RTM.  The opinions expressed in this column are only his own.  You can reach him at CommuterActionGroup@gmail.com

For a full collection of “Talking Transportation” columns, visit www.talkingtransportation.blogspot.com

Posted with permission of Hearst CT Media.

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