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Columns : The Federal Voice

Fly the Deadly Skies

Bean-counting politicians and bureaucrats are trying to eliminate the Federal Air Marshals Service, which will leave the traveling public helpless against armed terrorists on airliners.

December 18, 2015  |  by Jon Adler

At 30,000 feet, a commercial airliner's seat cushions are not a viable shield or weapon when terrorists attack. Nonetheless, critics of the Federal Air Marshal Service (FAMS) are once again questioning the program's cost-effectiveness. That's right, geniuses like Rep. John Duncan (R-TN) continue to disparage the air marshals as useless because they haven't made an overwhelming number of arrests. Unfortunately, this faulty approach to assessing the true value of a highly trained law enforcement component is contagious.

In September, the Department of Homeland Security Inspector General (IG) made the following statement before the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee: "The program (FAMS) was greatly expanded after 9/11 to guard against a specific type of terrorist incident. In the intervening years, terrorist operations and intentions have evolved. We will be looking at the Federal Air Marshal Program this year to determine whether the significant investment of resources in the program is justified by the risk."

So in effect, the IG is going to waste taxpayer dollars assessing whether an air marshal program is needed. The current director of the air marshals is a former Army Special Forces operator. The Secretary of DHS has an extensive intelligence background and is briefed daily on sensitive information relating to terrorist threats. Yet somehow, their word about the need for air marshals isn't good enough for the IG?

Additionally, the Government Accounting Office (GAO) just completed a 16-month review of the FAMS operations and training. Why would the IG dismiss the value and conclusions of this 16-month review and instead embark on his own costly inquisition of the FAMS? Unfortunately, his statement to the subcommittee only serves to imperil the safety of flying Americans while demeaning the air marshals. The IG seeks to assess how much money and resources should be invested in protecting Americans at 30,000 feet, and the unwavering answer should be every available dollar.

So what does it cost to run the FAMS annually? The current budget is approximately $800 million. Currently, air travelers are assessed a $5.60 security fee for each flight, yet this money does not go to support the FAMS. Perhaps the IG should look into how that money is spent and whether it buys any meaningful protections for Americans engaging in air travel. Nonetheless, if that fee were raised one dollar and allocated for the FAMS, it would pay for the majority of the FAMS' annual operating budget.

The critics assert that advanced screening and reinforced cockpits make the air marshals superfluous. What the critics don't tell you is the shocking percentage of success the covert teams and auditors have sneaking mock weapons and explosive devices through screening checkpoints. The critics also ignore the online video simulation that shows how easy it is for two role players to breach the cockpit and seize control of a plane in less than three seconds. Having armed pilots is an effective security measure, but it doesn't eliminate the need for armed law enforcement professionals to protect Americans in the cabin. I remind the critics that if not for the fee-paying American passengers in the cabin, there would be no flights. They are worth protecting, and Americans are not disposable.

I would respectfully suggest to the IG that this is not a matter for him to assess risk. Instead, he should consider how much a catastrophic attack like 9/11 cost our country in blood, tears, and treasure. We are still recovering from—and brave responders are still suffering and dying from—the effects of that attack.

Any short-sighted compulsion to cut law enforcement budgets will only serve to place Americans in harm's way.

Our elected officials need to wake up and identify areas  where they can cut the federal budget without jeopardizing public safety. Americans don't need more widgets and bureaucrats to keep them safe at 30,000 feet. Americans need more air marshals on more planes. When intel fails, and screening fails, and technology fails, the air marshals are the final layer of protection for air traveling Americans. As recently seen with the suspected terrorist bombing of Russia-bound flight 9268, and the unconscionable terrorist attacks in Paris, the bad guys aren't going away. Passengers armed with seat cushions can't defeat terrorists at 30,000 feet, but air marshals can.

Comments (15)

Displaying 1 - 15 of 15

Joe @ 12/23/2015 2:37 PM

Valid points in this article, but when there's a "boom", no one, including an air marshal, is going to be able to do anything about it. The Russian plane and NW flight 253 on 12/25/09 are examples. If you're depending on people at 30,000 feet to disarm devices and save the day like a scene out of Lethal Weapon, you have a very naive understanding of the realities of the threat. Do the math: 28,000 flights a day in the continental U.S. If you wanted to cover every flight every day, you'd have to have nearly 100,000 employees... That's a lot of money. And it comes down to more than money. Training tempo, retirements, maintaining and improving the program, oversight. These are things that with they haven't been able to control well at all with a fraction of that number. Security starts on the ground. How well that's done will determine success.

C @ 12/23/2015 3:16 PM

If we're being honest, there is simply not enough FAMS. The training is exceptional but operationally the program is seriously flawed. What's lacking is LEADERSHIP. Someone with vision to reimagine and better present and operate the agency. Not a new Con-op disguised in a way to cut down on major metropolitan area per diem rates.
As Law Enforcement/Security Professionals we must remember that while our security minds remain pure and would like to have security where ever it is needed, the professional in all of must understand that those who control the purse string will always see risk, assess risk and measure risk. $800 million given the other layers of security is better used. We just need a Leader who can advise them on how!

B @ 12/23/2015 3:47 PM

First the former director was not SF he was Intel assigned to SF get your information right!!!

The Real Clint @ 12/23/2015 5:10 PM

The real crime isn't that FAMs are not needed, its that there are hundreds of "supervisors" making GS14-15 type pay plus LEAP to do nothing but sit on their @ss and approve time sheets and travel vouchers. The fact that FAMs get LEAP is a crime and an insult to LEOs that really do police work, but to pay J\K band employees to "supervise" when a non-LEO could do that for a 25% savings is fraud and waste. Of course, a FAM will say that you have to be a LEO to supervise a LEO, but thats what they have to say when there is nothing else to hang onto.

I guess they have to say they are contributing to the war on terror by saying they are needed, but in reality they are sucking on the taxpayers teat and doing what they have to in order to lock in their 20 years.

David Tiedeman @ 12/23/2015 8:56 PM

I cannot for the life of me imagine why any LEO would be insulted by the fact FAMs receive LEAP. We are typically scheduled 10 hour days and the actuality of daily travel and delays means our standard day is well over 10 hours. We are one of the only agencies actually earning our LEAP.

Every flying FAM wants to do more "real police work", but we fall under the biggest BS bureaucracy by the name of TSA who is a non law enforcement agency and has no idea how to utilize their only law enforcement branch. Having said that and based on our training, I would match a typical FAM against any Federal LEO and we would be technically and tactically superior every day of the week.

Puke @ 12/24/2015 3:20 AM

Joe is right - the move away from hijackings and toward bombings has been taking place since Richard Reid attempted to detonate a bomb in his shoe, and from what I recall the FAM academy didn't teach us how to die easily. Also, to say that a FAM has better training or is tactically superior to other LEOs is BS. I know a lot of FAMs (both men and women) that couldn't fight their way out of a wet paper bag.

Nuff said

Bob @ 12/24/2015 6:19 AM

FAMS work more hours than MOST Leos and get screwed on overtime, travel, and time off. So screw you complainers that are jealous or disgruntled. I have met hundreds of various "agents" and so called operators out there that are complacent, fat, lazy, and can't fight nor shoot. Yes there are some remfs in the FAMs. Can't fix that. BUT, there are more in other organizations than the FAMs. FAMs don't get annual pay increases like all others, but work more hours, train more than most, and have the highest qualification scores than any one else outside of special forces.

Top @ 12/24/2015 9:03 AM

The biggest problem in the FAM service is not the working FAM, is the management that doesn't give a rats behind about the workforce or the mission. All you have to do us look at the HQ chain of command, those people have been recycled from position to position since the inception of the program, from DAD position to DAD position, same names, same lack of vision. They have no clue on how to effectively run a 21st century agency.

The FAMS doing the job are dedicated to the mission and give 100% to it.

Steve Theodoropoulos @ 12/24/2015 12:21 PM

The Union wants to keep the program going so they can keep there pay checks. I blew the whistle on the largest scandal in federal law enforcement history where these incompetent FAM supervisors target African Americans, Hispanics, females, Gay's, and US Vets. I testified before the oversight investigators this past March and still the same old Air Marshal management. One lie after another. They spent your tax dollars to have a SWAT team that flew around to compete against other SWAT teams . They lost automatic weapons in the airports, they drove vehicles drunk like at the Secret Service, they had sex while on duty, the Director was involved in a gun scandal and was allowed to retire and keep his pension. Folks I was a Trooper prior to joining this broken down organization. It should be gone at once or placed under a real police agency not the TSA. They want FAMs to take no action during an active shooter incident. I have the email to prove it. Your no safer today than prior to 911!

koolaidguzzler @ 12/26/2015 12:20 PM

FAMS leadership and followership is a two-edged sword. Many if not most fams managers are discouraged by upper mgrs from identifying with their troops (so that more of their energies can be spent on upper mgmt priorities) so EVEN if the I-bands wanted to serve the mission fams, their careers will often suffer from it.

That said, the quality of many entrant fams is abysmal, and has been since about 2007ish. Can't talk, can't write, undereducated, can't maintain behaviorial discipline when on RONs (overnights), unprepared to perform well without direct supervision, and too prone to lie about incidents. They confuse the "blue code of brothers" with lack of integrity.

There's a myth that fams must either be gladiators, or college wimps. American military and LE history has proven we can have educated gladiators. But to retain that type, we need educated supervisors, not recycled boneheads from other agencies.

Top @ 12/26/2015 7:26 PM

And the new would be Director, Acting Director, is going to make matters worse for the service. She has been one of those that has overstayed their welcome and has never done anything for the workforce, other than been recycled from DAD position to DAD position. In one word, disgraceful!

Dave @ 12/27/2015 2:58 PM

Amen to that Top. Bad enough we're stuck in the laughable TSA, now we're about to be sold out by our own disgraceful Acting Director.

Jim @ 12/28/2015 8:30 PM

One thing that would help is to allow full time and retired law enforcement officers to fly armed. As long as a few requirements are met; they are allowed to be armed in all states in the US, but still cannot fly armed.

Ryan Killoran @ 1/4/2016 7:49 AM

Good riddance to FAMS. It's a poorly run service. There have been a lot of great articles and reveals from Air Marshals themselves speaking out on how bad they have it (from poor leadership, to poor scheduling, to poor training, to extremely poor health/fitness assessment standards). One of the more popular articles is here:

FAMS, as it currently operates, is not the answer to in-flight security, or mitigating in-flight terror threats. I won't pretend to know what the answer is, but I will say I like Jim's comment above. Quoted below:

"One thing that would help is to allow full time and retired law enforcement officers to fly armed. As long as a few requirements are met; they are allowed to be armed in all states in the US, but still cannot fly armed."

Harbruk Durlin @ 7/21/2017 2:35 PM

"The critics assert that advanced screening and reinforced cockpits make the air marshals superfluous. What the critics don't tell you is the shocking percentage of success the... auditors have sneaking mock weapons and explosive devices through screening checkpoints. The critics also ignore the online video simulation that shows how easy it is for two role players to breach the cockpit and seize control of a plane in less than three seconds."
I won't bother trying to persuade stubborn readers that we must use our resources wisely, but let me at least respond to the above quote. In brief, as noted by these fantastic authors:,
1) It mostly just matters if they storm the cockpit. FAMs don't stop bombs.
2) Critics DO NOT "IGNORE" the three-second rush scenario; in fact, it's that very scenario—the only plausible cockpit-takeover scenario—which makes FAMs useless, b/c they couldn't stop that.
3) The money should be spent on secondary barriers, which would stop that.

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