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A Federal Air Marshal is a law enforcement officer charged with maintaining the safety and security of passenger aircraft and airports in the United States. Air Marshals are assigned to the United States Transportation Security Administration (TSA) which is an agency within the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. The specific number of air marshals that are currently employed by the U.S. Government is classified but is believed to be in the thousands.
The Federal Air Marshal Service originated in the early 1960s during the Kennedy Administration as a reaction to an increased number of hijackings of aircraft flying between the U.S. and Cuba. The Air Marshal Service was further expanded by President Ronald Reagan in the mid 1980s after the much publicized hijacking of Trans World Airways (TWA) Flight 847 in the Middle East. After the terrorist attacks on the United States on 11 September 2001 the service was expanded once more by President George W. Bush, from approximately 30 air marshals to several thousand, to meet the growing threat to American airlines and airports posed by global terrorism.
Each day thousands of air marshals are assigned to airline flights all across the United States. On the average, an air marshal is required to fly approximately 15 days a month and a little over 180 days and 900 flight hours a year. There are not enough air marshals to be assigned to every airline flight in the U.S.; therefore air marshals are assigned to flights that are considered to be higher risk targets for an attack.
A Federal Air Marshal poses as a regular passenger on an airplane. While on board an aircraft, air marshals maintain constant surveillance in an effort to prevent a hostile act before it begins. In the event that an attack or hijacking occurs, air marshals seek to immediately neutralize the threat.
In a perfect situation an air marshal would blend in seamlessly and remain completely anonymous to the other passengers on the aircraft. The flight crew however, is made aware of the identity of any air marshals on board an airline flight. Anonymity is considered important because it is believed that once the identity of a Federal air marshal is known, the air marshal would be an obvious target in the event of an attack or hijacking. Unfortunately, there have been reports of the identities of air marshals being compromised through mistakes, negligence, or faulty policies and procedures
Due to the nature of the position, many Federal Air Marshals are former military or law enforcement personnel. They undergo an extensive and specialized three month training program and are believed by many to have the highest firearm qualifications among law enforcement officers. Those interested in obtaining information about the Federal Air Marshal Service should contact the U.S. Department of Homeland Security or the Transportation Security Administration.
I know I'd feel better about being on some flights if I thought an air marshal was on board. I've been on a few flights where I wish someone had arrested an irritating passenger -- although I realize that's not the air marshal's function.
I have heard of them breaking up incipient fights among passengers, however, which makes sense when you consider that a fight could certainly jeopardize the safety of the flight. The bad part about that is that some adults cannot control themselves (or their alcohol consumption) sufficiently to make sure they are acting appropriately during a flight.