Your illusions are safe
Sources: Air marshals missing from almost all flights
By Drew Griffin, Kathleen Johnston and Todd Schwarzschild
March 26, 2008
(CNN) — Of the 28,000 commercial airline flights that take to the skies on
an average day in the United States, fewer than 1 percent are protected by on-board,
armed federal air marshals, a nationwide CNN investigation has found.
That means a terrorist or other criminal bent on taking over an aircraft would
be confronted by a trained air marshal on as few as 280 daily flights, according
to more than a dozen federal air marshals and pilots interviewed by CNN.
The Transportation Security Administration flatly denied those reports.
Greg Alter, assistant special agent in charge of the federal air marshal program,
said the 280 number "grossly understates coverage by an order of magnitude"
and that the number is "four digits," but he would not elaborate.
In a post on its Web site responding to the CNN story, the TSA said it would
not disclose the number of air marshals flying each day so as not to "tip
our hand to terrorists." However, it said, "The actual number of flights
that air marshals cover is thousands per day." Read the full response
The investigation found low numbers even as the TSA in recent months has conducted
tests in which it has been able to smuggle guns and bomb-making materials past
airport security screeners.
The air marshal program began in 1970, after a rash of airline hijackings,
and it was expanded significantly after the terrorist attacks of September 11,
2001. Specially trained to safeguard passengers and crew aboard crowded aircraft,
air marshals were seen as a critical component in the overall effort to secure
America’s commercial aviation system.
One pilot who crisscrosses the country and flies internationally told CNN he
hasn’t seen an air marshal on board one of his flights in six months. A federal
law enforcement officer, who is not affiliated with the air marshal service
and who travels in and out of Washington every week, said he has gone for months
without seeing a marshal on board.
Neither individual wanted to be identified because neither is authorized by
his employer to speak.
Yet another pilot, who wanted to protect his identity because he carries a
weapon in the cockpit, said he regularly flies in and out of New York’s airports
and almost never encounters an air marshal.
"I would have to guess it’s fewer than 1 percent of all my flights,"
the pilot said. "I’m guessing by the coverage of when I go to those cities,
fewer than 1 percent."
Air marshals who spoke with CNN anonymously in order to protect their jobs
are especially troubled by the lack of coverage on flights in and out of Washington
and New York, the two cities targeted by the 9/11 hijackers. Marshals, pilots
and other law enforcement officials told CNN these flights are protected by
far fewer air marshals than in the past.
The TSA refuses to release either the total number of marshals regularly assigned
to flights or a percentage of daily flights that are covered, but called the
numbers given to CNN "a myth."
Alter denied CNN an on-camera interview with Dana Brown, director of the Federal
Air Marshal Service.
"Since the Federal Air Marshal Service post-September 11, 2001, expansion,
the volume of risk-based deployments has consistently remained at, near or exceeded
target levels," Alter wrote in an e-mail to CNN. He added, "Today,
many thousands of dedicated and highly trained Federal Air Marshal Service [sic]
work diligently around the globe to make air travel safer than it’s ever been."
But Alter did not specify what those target levels are, and those inside the
marshals service say there are nowhere near "thousands" of air marshals
working the skies.
Air marshals told CNN that while the TSA tells the public it cannot divulge
numbers because they are classified, the agency tells its own agents that at
least 5 percent of all flights are covered.
But marshals across the country — all of whom spoke with CNN on the condition
they not be identified for fear of losing their jobs — said the 5 percent figure
quoted to them by their TSA bosses is not possible.
One marshal said that while security is certainly one reason the numbers are
kept secret, he believes the agency simply doesn’t want taxpayers to know the
"I would be very embarrassed by [the numbers] if they were to get out,"
one air marshal said.
"The American public would be shocked. … I think the average person
understands there’s no physical way to protect every single flight everywhere,"
the air marshal said. "But it’s such a small percentage. It’s just very
aggravating for us."
Sources inside the air marshal field offices told CNN the program has been
unable to stem the losses of trained air marshals since the program’s numbers
peaked in 2003 — and many of those who have left have not been replaced. Read
how Drew Griffin got the story
CNN was told that staffing in Dallas, Texas, for instance, is down 44 percent
from its high, while Seattle, Washington, has 40 percent fewer agents. Las Vegas,
Nevada, which had as many as 245 air marshals, this past February had only 47.
The Transportation Security Administration is advertising for applicants to
fill 50 air marshal positions.
The decline in the number of air marshals comes as no surprise to pilots. David
Mackett, president of the Airline Pilots Security Alliance and a pilot himself,
said that, based on conversations with other pilots and marshals, he believes
the TSA is overstating the number of flights that are protected by a federal
In his e-mail to CNN, Alter wrote, "In 2007, the Federal Air Marshal Service
attrition rate was approximately 6.5 percent, the same approximate average it
has been for almost the entire period since the agency’s expansion after September
"I can only speak for myself and the 23,000 members of my organization,
and we are not seeing anywhere near the coverage they are asserting they have,"
Mackett said. "They are whistling past the graveyard, hoping against hope
that this house of cards that they call airline security doesn’t come crashing
down around them."
As it turns out, the words "coverage" or "covered" have
special meaning when applied to the air marshal service. In his e-mail to CNN,
TSA’s Alter said, "The Federal Air Marshal Service employs an intelligence
driven and risk based approach to covering flights."
In a phone conversation with correspondent Drew Griffin, Alter said he uses
the term "covered" to mean that a federal marshal is on board. But
air marshals and pilots CNN spoke with say that’s not exactly the case.
These sources say the marshal service considers a flight "covered"
even if a marshal is not on board — as long as a law enforcement officer or
pilot in possession of a firearm is on board, even if that person is flying
for personal reasons. The "covered" designation includes pilots armed
in the cockpit.
"Yes, they’ve specifically told us that we’re a covered flight when there’s
an armed, trained person on the plane, then that’s a covered flight," said
the pilot who regularly flies in and out of New York and who is trained under
a federal program to carry a weapon in the cockpit.
The firearms training program for pilots is budgeted at $25 million. And while
it is popular among airline pilots, many complain that they have to spend as
much as $3,000 of their own money for lodging and meals when they take the course.
By comparison, the federal air marshal budget this year is $720 million. But
air marshals who spoke with CNN question where the money is going when their
numbers are dwindling and fewer than 1 percent of flights are covered on any
"I’m afraid in the past, the only things that have really worked has been
to call out the media and say we need people to call their congressman, call
their senators and tell them they want better protection, and hopefully the
changes will trickle down to us," one marshal said.
Critics also ask whether our government is doing enough to protect the public
if the number of marshals protecting planes is down and screeners aren’t catching
weapons in controlled tests. Former Rep. Tim Roemer, D-Indiana, voted against
the creation of the Department of Homeland Security, the bureaucracy that oversees
the federal air marshal service under the auspices of the TSA. He also served
on the 9/11 commission that investigated the terrorist attacks.
"This is an agency or department that is critical for the U.S. long-term
security needs," Roemer said. "So the basic building blocks, the front
line of defense are air marshals. If you’re not providing that safety for our
people on a pretty basic program seven years after 9/11, we’ve got a lot of
work to do at the department, and probably Congress has a lot more work to do
on its oversight."
This is an exclusive report from the CNN Special Investigations Unit.
Source URL: http://www.cnn.com/2008/TRAVEL/03/25/siu.air.marshals/
See also: Facade
of Security. How "the TSA still falls short in 7 of 24, or almost
one-third, of critical performance benchmarks." Consumer Reports,
Redux: ‘Thousands of Aliens’ in U.S. Flight Schools Illegally: Former
FAA Inspector: TSA’s Enforcement of Post-9/11 Laws ‘Basically Nonexistent’,
at Brian Ross’ ABC Blotter.