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Evolving Threats Challenge Federal Air Marshal Service to Keep Pace

The last line of defense against threats in the skies is Federal Air Marshals, undercover armed law enforcement officers present on many flights. As terrorist tactics continue to evolve and new threats emerge, it’s imperative Federal Air Marshals are prepared to meet yesterday’s threats as well as the threats of tomorrow.

Earlier this month, the House Committee on Homeland Security’s Subcommittee on Transportation Security held a hearing to determine whether the Federal Air Marshals Service (FAMS) is adequately prepared to protect aviation security.

“The Federal Air Marshal Service was significantly expanded in the wake of the terror attacks of September 11, 2001,” said subcommittee chairman John Katko (R-NY). “The outcome of 9/11 could have been very different if we had Federal Air Marshals on those planes. However, we also have to keep in mind that the threat to aviation security has evolved dramatically over the last fourteen years.”

“It is not clear to me whether the service and its strategy for resource allocation have kept pace with new threats,” Katko added.

Kathleen Rice (D-NY), a ranking member of the subcommittee, pointed out that the ranks of air marshals are shrinking at a rapid rate.Furthermore, the number of field offices is also decreasing: last year there were 26 field offices and this year there are 22, with 2 more closing soon.

“There has not been a new Federal Air Marshal Service class in four years,” Rice said. “When you couple this with high attrition and poor retention rates, it’s clear that the organization is shrinking dramatically, and it also raises serious questions about workforce morale.”

The subcommittee heard testimony from Roderick Allison, the director of FAMS, and Tim Canoll, president of the Air Line Pilots Association (ALPA). Both reiterated the importance of having security onboard aircraft to prevent attacks.

“Federal Air Marshals serve as a deterrent tothose with intent to do harm, and their presence helps to sustain the confidence of the traveling public,” Allison said.

Prior to the tragic September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, FAMS consisted of only 33 full-time marshals. After 9/11, the Aviation and Transportation Security Act of 2001 allowed more air marshals to be rapidly trained and deployed on flights.

According to Allison, Federal Air Marshals can be deployed quickly in times of emergency, such as after the plot to detonate liquid explosives aboard planes flying from the UK in 2006 and the failed bombing on Northwest Airlines Flight 253. FAMS also assisted during the evacuation of US citizens from Cypress in 2006. They have responded to non-terrorist threats in the air as well, including medical emergencies.

Allison stated that FAMS is ready to face any threats that might occur in the skies. FAMS has recently completed an updated Concept of Operations that addresses risk mitigation and the unpredictability of air travel. It is also in the process of creating a “risk by flight” methodology which will determine which flights are the most at-risk based on location and passenger risk.

FAMS has also conducted a field office assessment to ensure that air marshals are stationed at the most at-risk airports. As a result, the offices in Cincinnati, Cleveland, Phoenix, Pittsburgh, San Diego, and Tampa will be closed and personnel reassigned to the “most critical offices.”

When it comes to medical and mental health amenities, Allison asserted all air marshals have these services available to them. The FAMS Medical Programs Section has physicians available around the clock, while a Critical Incident Response Unit is present to help air marshals and their families. FAMS also has licensed mental health professionals.

Allison’s testimony also covered the Visible Intermodal Prevention and Response (VIPR) Program, which is managed by FAMS. Through VIPR, the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) sends personnel, including air marshals, to help law enforcement increase security in mass transit systems during times of heightened security, such as holidays. Last year, the VIPR Program conducted around 14,000 operations, including at the 2014 Super Bowl.

“FAMS is a strong counterterrorism layer in the security TSA provides to the traveling public,” Allison said. “We take our mission seriously and our workforce is dedicated to preventing and disrupting acts of terror onboard aircraft.”

Canoll appeared before the subcommittee as a representative of ALPA, a union that represents over 52,000 pilots flying for 31 different airlines. “ALPA has a decades-old relationship with FAMS which dates back long before it was part of TSA and even before it was overseen by the Federal Aviation Administration,” he said.

Canoll emphasized ALPA’s appreciation for the professionalism of Federal Air Marshals, as well as the organization’s understanding that being an air marshal is a thankless job.

“It mostly consists of long hours traveling on airliners, endeavoring to maintain a low profile while still keeping high situational awareness and being prepared to react on a moment’s notice to any disturbance which could threaten the flight,” Canoll said.

Canoll also addressed the Federal Flight Deck Officer (FFDO) program, which trains airline pilots to use force to protect flights. ALPA worked with TSA to create the program. FFDOs are all volunteers, and since 2003, thousands of pilots have gone through the program.

“A fully trained and armed pilot in the cockpit provides a strong deterrent against the potential for terrorist acts and helps ensure that our airplanes will never again be used as guided weapons,” Canoll said.

Canoll also stated he supported increasing secondary security barriers on airplanes to protect the flight deck whenever the cockpit door has to be opened. The periods of time when the cockpit doors are opened are when the plane is most vulnerable, according to Canoll.

“The key to any multi-faceted, multi-layered safety plan is to be proactive and not reactive,” he said. “We need to be mindful of the ever-merging threats that face our nation and not get complacent in our defense against terrorism.”

Editor’s note: Also read the October 2013 Homeland Security Today report, The Secret World of Air Marshals, by Contributing Writer and former Federal Air Marshal Clay Biles.

Homeland Security Todayhttp://www.hstoday.us
The Government Technology & Services Coalition's Homeland Security Today (HSToday) is the premier news and information resource for the homeland security community, dedicated to elevating the discussions and insights that can support a safe and secure nation. A non-profit magazine and media platform, HSToday provides readers with the whole story, placing facts and comments in context to inform debate and drive realistic solutions to some of the nation’s most vexing security challenges.

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