Federal Air Marshals – Law Enforcement in the Sky

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Federal Air Marshals work for the Transportation Security Administration, one of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s agencies. However, you wouldn’t see any air marshals among a TSA staff photo like this one as they operate undercover.

Just over a month ago, the NBC News story (“Unruly passenger taped to a seat on Icelandair flight”) posted on our Facebook page got a lot of attention. The image of the man enveloped in tape (for trying to choke someone, hitting others and yelling “the plane was going to crash”) would make anyone do a double take. It sounds like passengers were very effective at detaining the man, although I’m guessing it wouldn’t be a customary approach performed by a Federal Air Marshal.

It’s impossible for there to be a Federal Air Marshal on every single flight, and you never know which flight they are going to be on. Jason Whitely for Kens 5 TV News (November 5, 2012) reported that there may be about 4,000 air marshals in the United States (although the actual figures are top secret), and there are about 30,000 commercial flights a day within the country.

However, Conan Bruce, a Federal Air Marshal Spokesperson, said, in an interview conducted by Gayle for Oprah Radio, that the number of air marshals has significantly increased since before 9/11 when there were only 50 or less. Bruce shared that air marshals constantly look at passengers, in an inconspicuous way, and try to detect suspicious or deceptive behavior. “We train to deal with anything from a medical emergency to—God forbid—a hijacker,” he added in the Oprah.com interview.

“…the Federal Air Marshal Service is a clandestine layer which operates in plain sight every day,” reported Whitely. “[Air marshal supervisor] Tony Metcalf said air marshals develop cover stories to explain why they’re flying in case other passengers strike up a conversation.”

After being hired by the Transportation Security Administration (TSA), air marshal-recruits go through extensive training—approximately 16 weeks between the Federal Law Enforcement Training Center and the Federal Air Marshal Service Training Center, reported Michael O’Connell for Federal News Radio (October 2012).

“I think one of the neatest things about the Federal Air Marshal Service, and one of the things that we take a lot of pride in, is the fact that we have the highest qualification standard out of any federal law enforcement agency when it comes to our firearms skills,” said Kimberly F. Thompson, former Dallas police officer, now supervisor at the Federal Air Marshal training center, in O’Connell’s report. Thompson added that federal air marshals must meet a minimum firearms score of 85% and re-qualify four times a year. Air marshals are trained in a range of other skills as well, including how to operate basic cockpit controls to communicate with Air Traffic Control and how to engage in effective close quarter combat.

Learn more about a career as a Federal Air Marshal by visiting our degree, training and job description page and visiting the TSA’s Career Page.

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