Do Flights Still Have Federal Air Marshals?

Do Flights Still Have Federal Air Marshals?

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A reader recently messaged me a question about air marshals on flights within the United States, and that made me think that I haven’t really written a post about the current state of the program.

I figured that would be a fun topic, though let me acknowledge that a lot of the information about the program is confidential, so some of this is just speculation.

What are federal air marshals, and what do they do?

While there are some sort of air marshals in many countries (in particular countries like Israel, Egypt, Jordan, etc.), I’ll be focusing on the Federal Air Marshal Service (FAMS) for the purposes of this post. FAMS is a United States federal law enforcement agency, and it’s under the supervision of the Transportation Security Administration (TSA), which reports to the United States Department of Homeland Security (DHS).

Interestingly air marshals in the United States date back all the way to the 1960s, though the program has evolved a lot over time, especially post-9/11 (after all, the TSA was only formed after 9/11).

Air marshals are armed and specially trained law enforcement officers that essentially fly around, disguised as regular passengers. They generally take flights that are deemed to be higher risk, and they’ll never reveal their identity unless there’s a major incident that requires them to. In other words, they generally won’t get involved if a passenger starts misbehaving, unless they think it poses a risk to the safety of the flight.

Now, the effectiveness of the modern day FAMS program is quite debatable. They don’t have much to show for their work in terms of having stopped any terror plots, though there have been several instances where air marshals have gotten in trouble for their behavior, ranging from leaving their gun behind, to getting arrested, to smuggling counterfeit viagra.

One thing I’m not sure of nowadays is what exactly the revenue arrangement is between air marshals and airlines. I believe back in the day airlines had to make these seats available at no cost, though I’m also seeing reports that the government pays the contracted government rates for seats, so I’m not sure what the reality is nowadays (if anyone has any insights, please chime in!).

The air marshal program still exists in the United States

How many flights have federal air marshals?

The FAMS program does still exist, though the number of people flying around the country as air marshals isn’t officially published. The last estimate I saw suggested that there are around 3,000 air marshals in the United States. However, about one-third of those work on the ground in managerial and other roles, so only around 2,000 are actually flying.

There are somewhere around 25,000-30,000 commercial flights in the United States daily, so what does that mean in terms of how many flights have air marshals? It’s hard to say, though here are a few things to consider:

  • Air marshals generally travel in pairs, so you’ll want to divide the number of air marshals by two (or in some cases even four) to determine how many flights might have them
  • The number of flights air marshals take in a day can vary greatly, as they travel both domestically and internationally; some days they might take two roundtrips between Washington and Boston, while other days they might take one flight from New York to London
  • Generally air marshals are prioritized on certain routes, determined by a computer program that assesses the probability of a threat; this is based on the aircraft type, departure and destination cities, and the amount of fuel onboard
  • You’ll find the most air marshals on routes to & from Washington National Airport (DCA), though you’ll also find many on flights to & from New York, including Kennedy (JFK) and LaGuardia (LGA)

So your odds of seeing an air marshal are highly dependent on the route you’re flying. To & from Washington, odds are that flights have air marshals, while on flights to & from other cities, odds are that there won’t be air marshals. Back in 2014, a USA Today story estimated that fewer than 1% of flights in the United States have air marshals.

Expect air marshals on flights to & from Washington

How can you spot a federal air marshal?

Going back a decade, I’d always have fun playing the “spot the air marshal” game. To be honest, I haven’t put much thought into the program in recent years, but I imagine not a whole lot has changed. While air marshals are supposed to blend in, typically they’re pretty easy to spot. Among other things, here are a few things that stand out:

  • They always sit in aisle seats, typically toward the back of first class, though also sometimes in economy (they can either be in the front or back of economy)
  • They travel in pairs, but always sit separately, so they might board together, but then you see them seated in different areas (admittedly this also happens to non-air marshals)
  • They don’t sleep, they don’t drink alcohol, and they don’t put on headphones; however, you’ll often see them playing video games, or maybe having one earbud in
  • They love button down shirts, and generally wear baggy clothes, since they’re carrying a gun (typically on their ankle, though also sometimes close to their waist)
  • Back in the day they used to board before everyone, though I’m not sure that’s the case anymore

So yeah, air marshals are especially easy to spot in first class, since they neither look like they’re traveling on vacation (having a drink, watching a movie with headphones, etc.), nor do they really look like they’re traveling on business (in business attire, working on a laptop, etc.).

Air marshals usually sit toward the back of first class

Bottom line

The federal air marshal program continues to be alive and well in the United States. There are only believed to be at most a few thousand people employed by FAMS, and many of those people don’t even fly. So while there continue to be air marshals, it’s estimated that fewer than 1% of flights have these people onboard.

They are the most frequently on flights to & from Washington, as well as select other routes that are deemed to be higher risk.

What’s your take on the air marshal program in the United States?

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  1. Scarlett-Gold New Member

    Do most airlines have air marshalls?

  2. Valerie Waters Guest

    Air marshals' job is to help prevent violence and terrorism on flights to protect people. It seems reckless for the journalist who wrote the article to speculate about things like public safety policy, and not in their realm of professional experience. That's how rumors and misinformation gets started. Secondly, why would you want to identify people that are trying to be under cover to help with violent people in an emergency? There is a reason...

    Air marshals' job is to help prevent violence and terrorism on flights to protect people. It seems reckless for the journalist who wrote the article to speculate about things like public safety policy, and not in their realm of professional experience. That's how rumors and misinformation gets started. Secondly, why would you want to identify people that are trying to be under cover to help with violent people in an emergency? There is a reason they are not publicly identified! You got a question that should not have been addressed publicly. I think you should have by passed it and used good common sense here. Were you trying to help terrorists by helping them to identify our protectors? I expect more than speculation in my travel sources in the future, I like relevant facts. You should be thankful there are people who try to protect you and others when they fly. This thread seemed more appropriate among your friends than in an internet conversation or blog.

  3. Jeff Guest

    Our genius president has taken many air marshals off of flights and moved them to our southern boarder to help with the border crisis he caused

  4. Chuck Guest

    Back in 2002 when I worked at an airport a FAM left their badge on a plane (not sure where exactly, a seatback pocket perhaps?) They brought it to me for safekeeping and I held onto it until the FAM showed up to retrieve it. She seemed a bit distraught, and had me go through who exactly had been in possession of the badge since it was found (which was just the FA who found it, then the captain of the flight, then me.)

  5. Robert MacLean Guest

    A redacted unpublished 2011 Radio Technical Commission on Aeronautics study report (No. RTCA DO-329) determined that Federal Air Marshals are unable to stop 9/11-style unlocked—see pages 158 and 245 of the 9/11 Commission report—cockpit attacks:

    https://www.mercurynews.com/2019/12/14/flight-security-hopelessly-inadequate-to-stop-another-9-11-style-attack-whistleblower-says/

  6. Anthony Joseph Guest

    On Alaska Airlines flights, they still keep 1 seat open but don't have it avaiable for sale (look at first class seat map and then see how many F/C seats are available for purchase).
    So, I am not sure about them always travelling in pairs.

    But the good news about the FAM program is that if the Air Marshal is not assigned for the flight, the seat is avaiable for upgrade at the...

    On Alaska Airlines flights, they still keep 1 seat open but don't have it avaiable for sale (look at first class seat map and then see how many F/C seats are available for purchase).
    So, I am not sure about them always travelling in pairs.

    But the good news about the FAM program is that if the Air Marshal is not assigned for the flight, the seat is avaiable for upgrade at the airport. I have got this seat many times as a Gold 100K member.

    This is on the long hauls coast-to-coast flights, particularly to New York and Washington DC. Don't see the "set-aside" seat on flights to Hawaii.

  7. Chris Guest

    Late in 2022 I was in Minneapolis, MN. There was a billboard near the airport recruiting for air marshals.

    Stated the hourly wage and a few other details

  8. CeePee Guest

    Has there been any major incident that was averted by the Air Marshals inside an airplane?

  9. hans Guest

    I regularly see them on SWISS (LX) en route to JFK. They are on board already before pre-boarding starts and always have an aisle seat in F, which is shown as blocked on EF until boarding.

    1. Andy Diamond

      Yes, but they are from the Swiss police. Switzerland also has an air marshall program. They are called "foxes".

  10. iamhere Guest

    I think they should be on all flights. I think there are many altercations especially between passengers and crew that could be avoided if they get involved. It seems often that crew take advantage of the fact that the Unions will likely back the flight crew and they sometimes purposely escalate a situation with a passenger. It is no surprise that problematic situations occur more often on American based airlines than Asian or European carriers.

    1. Rubondese Guest

      I think air marshals shouldn’t exist.

    2. JW Guest

      Great comment. Care to expand? Otherwise, it is a pointless reply…

    3. stogieguy7 Member

      "I think air marshals shouldn’t exist."

      And, I think that bad people shouldn't exist. Sadly, we live in the real world where the latter proliferates humanity and the former is necessary.

    4. Icarus Guest

      You’re very naive. These issues occur on European and Asian carriers frequently . Can you imagine how many tens of 1000s of marshalls would need to be employed v numbers of incidents ?

  11. Justin Guest

    I can't say how wrong you are about many things here , but they literally are the people you least expect...

  12. Ross Guest

    The FY 2023 budget for FAMS included $104 million for travel and transportation, so there must be some tickets in that (it would work out to about $50,000 per marshal). The TSA budget also included about $20 million for training of flight deck officers and crew. The idea seems to be to let them take over some of the duties.

  13. Michael Guest

    They must get a lot of miles traveling first class all over the world

    1. Larry Guest

      They do NOT Get miles :(

  14. M. Aldridge Guest

    My ExHusband was involved for years in the program. You are so wrong when you indicate only 2 on a plane. When there was a threat on an international flight, a team of 12 was deployed. This was in the ‘80s and early ‘90s. He was hardly home one week in 30 days.

    1. Ricardo Guest

      And you believed him?
      Good thing he is now an ex...

  15. Logan Guest

    Federal Air Marshals are not Law Enforcement Officers. In the federal system, LEOs have an 1811 job series. AIR Marshals are in the 1801 Investigator job series. They have a waiver to carry a weapon and detain individuals, but that jurisdiction is limited to the jetway and the plane. This is why whenever you read about someone being detained by an Air Marshal, you also hear about the plane being met by local/airport police to...

    Federal Air Marshals are not Law Enforcement Officers. In the federal system, LEOs have an 1811 job series. AIR Marshals are in the 1801 Investigator job series. They have a waiver to carry a weapon and detain individuals, but that jurisdiction is limited to the jetway and the plane. This is why whenever you read about someone being detained by an Air Marshal, you also hear about the plane being met by local/airport police to actually arrest the individual - since Air Marshals can't exercise arrest authority as non-law enforcement. Former TSA here.

    1. John Guest

      Whole bunch of misinformation here. Stick to being a former TSO.

    2. John Guest

      Former TSA here as well, you're wrong on every point here. FAMs are sworn LEOs, and can enforce Title 18 (Criminal Code) and 49 (Transportation). Their jurisdiction is anywhere in the United States. Local police meets the plane to assist the FAM with housing and processing the arrestee.

      Also, 1811 is Criminal Investigation job series, such as FBI, HSI and DEA. 1801 is General Inspection, Investigation, Enforcement, and Compliance GS-1801. This series covers positions which...

      Former TSA here as well, you're wrong on every point here. FAMs are sworn LEOs, and can enforce Title 18 (Criminal Code) and 49 (Transportation). Their jurisdiction is anywhere in the United States. Local police meets the plane to assist the FAM with housing and processing the arrestee.

      Also, 1811 is Criminal Investigation job series, such as FBI, HSI and DEA. 1801 is General Inspection, Investigation, Enforcement, and Compliance GS-1801. This series covers positions which supervise, lead, or perform inspection, investigation, enforcement, or compliance work. There are law enforcement positions at 1801.

      You best do research on something before you spew incorrect information, and you better be sure of it before you claim being a subject matter expert by being "Former TSA".

    3. Warren Trout Guest

      Even armed pilots are LEOs, just with the very smallest jurisdiction.

    4. JP Schearer Guest

      Use the Google machine and look up their authority. They ARE the “Law Enforcement” section of TSA. Jurisdiction is NATIONWIDE and certainly not only on airplanes and jetways.

  16. Apple Guest

    Don’t forget the scandal where they were scheduling the Air Marshalls so they could hook up and have extramarital sex?

  17. Dan Guest

    No Air Marshal has ever worn an ankle holster on the job. It's against policy and tactically stupid.

  18. Marilyn Bradford Guest

    I traveled on a United flight from France to IAH and was seated next to an Air Marshal. I didn't know it at the time, I just thought he as a bit weird. He dressed like a slob and brought a very stinky sandwich on board. He was ultra not friendly. He did seem to have a friend a few rows up on the aisle. (This was a two by two by two configuration) It...

    I traveled on a United flight from France to IAH and was seated next to an Air Marshal. I didn't know it at the time, I just thought he as a bit weird. He dressed like a slob and brought a very stinky sandwich on board. He was ultra not friendly. He did seem to have a friend a few rows up on the aisle. (This was a two by two by two configuration) It wasn't until we landed and I watched him and his friend got through Global Entry by just showing badges that I realised they were something different. The agent confirmed that they were Air Marshals. I had a great sense of gratitude upon learning that! Thank you guys for keeping travel safe for all of us!!

  19. Giordano Guest

    Another wasteful taxes sucking agency that should be abolished just like ICE.

  20. NedsKid Member

    The details you ask about would be considered SSI for anyone who does know.

  21. Stuart Guest

    "They love button down shirts, and generally wear baggy clothes"

    I guess 98% of all American men who fly are Air Marshalls.

    1. Giordano Guest

      Yeah, unless you're in the large metropolitan areas, everyone dresses like a hick.

  22. Darren C Diamond

    FAMS is under TSA, under DHS. Though they are "Marshalls", they are not the same as U.S. Marshalls. USMS is under DOJ.

    If you fly enough, you will see armed officials on flights, from federal, state, and local jurisdictions, not just FAMS.

    Last year, leaving FAI, I stood behind a prisoner with waist and wrist shackles, with one agent on either side. The three sat together in Economy.

    Two days ago Executive Flyers posted a...

    FAMS is under TSA, under DHS. Though they are "Marshalls", they are not the same as U.S. Marshalls. USMS is under DOJ.

    If you fly enough, you will see armed officials on flights, from federal, state, and local jurisdictions, not just FAMS.

    Last year, leaving FAI, I stood behind a prisoner with waist and wrist shackles, with one agent on either side. The three sat together in Economy.

    Two days ago Executive Flyers posted a similar article on FAMS, with more details:
    https://executiveflyers.com/is-there-an-air-marshal-on-every-flight/

  23. Eskimo Guest

    I don't know how they calculate risk.

    But my calculations are to put them exclusively on Spirit and Frontier.
    And to show for their work, just enforce law any law. Don't try to exclusively prevent terrorists. Statistics have shown how effective that is.

  24. Sam Guest

    Genuine question for the lolz, what happens if you go up to one of these dudes and ask them if they are an air marshal?

    1. Eskimo Guest

      Just like when drug dealers ask them if they are narcs or undercover cops.
      They probably read somewhere on the internet that police cannot lie. So if you ask them they must answer truthfully.

      But when it comes to politicians, there are only 2 types, those get caught lying and those that don't get caught. Just go ask George Santos

      How's that for the lolz.

    2. CHRIS Guest

      The HAVE to tell you that they're a FAM. They'll also give you a mini badge pin.

    3. General Guest

      Just sit down and enjoy your flight “lolz”. Why would you do that? Goffy. You would wet your pants if you ever worked a day in their world.

Featured Comments Most helpful comments ( as chosen by the OMAAT community ).

The comments on this page have not been provided, reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any advertiser, and it is not an advertiser's responsibility to ensure posts and/or questions are answered.

Stuart Guest

"They love button down shirts, and generally wear baggy clothes" I guess 98% of all American men who fly are Air Marshalls.

4
General Guest

Just sit down and enjoy your flight “lolz”. Why would you do that? Goffy. You would wet your pants if you ever worked a day in their world.

2
JW Guest

Great comment. Care to expand? Otherwise, it is a pointless reply…

2
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