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Sunday, January 29, 2023

Federal Air Marshal Service Plans More Ground-Based Operations as GAO Tells the Service to Improve COVID-19 Testing

The Government Accountability Office (GAO) reports that 345 employees at the U.S. Federal Air Marshal Service (FAMS) became infected with COVID-19 and one air marshal had died due to complications of the disease, as of January 31, 2021.

Air marshals work at airports, on airplanes, and in other public spaces where they routinely come in close contact with others. FAMS took steps to protect employees from infection at work by providing N95 masks and encouraging employees to telework where possible, such as when filling in time sheets.

GAO found that although FAMS created protocols to guide how to respond when employees become sick with COVID-19, it hasn’t consistently documented how it has done so or made testing readily available. 

Of the 345 employees, 234 were flying air marshals, 50 were supervisors or managers, 48 were non-flying marshals, and 13 were support staff. FAMS has a workforce of approximately 3000. GAO reported that infection rates per office ranged from less than one percent of employees in FAMS headquarters to 19 percent of employees in the Las Vegas field office.

GAO also found FAMS does not routinely facilitate employee access to COVID-19 testing. FAMS recommends employees seek testing through their medical provider or local public health officials, but air marshals in all three field offices GAO met with either noted barriers to testing or benefits to improved access to tests. 

According to DHS Human Capital officials, the Coast Guard and Secret Service are providing their employees with access to COVID-19 testing as part of their efforts to ensure continued operations during the pandemic, and DHS has provided all components with the opportunity to access a contract for COVID-19 testing as of January 2021. But as of February 2021, FAMS did not plan to use this contract or otherwise facilitate employee access to testing.

Air marshals GAO met with during the review expressed concern that they might be a threat to the public, because they are flying on multiple planes and through multiple cities every week, without knowing whether they might be asymptomatic and spreading COVID-19. Some air marshals noted that this runs counter to their mission to protect the public.

FAMS employees became eligible for COVID-19 vaccinations in January 2021, but Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidance says testing continues to be important even as vaccinations become available. 

GAO recommends that FAMS officials consistently document steps taken to implement agency protocols following identification of employees with COVID-19, and should also routinely facilitate employee access to COVID-19 testing. The Department of Homeland Security concurred with both recommendations and expects to have both actions in place by July.

Starting in February 2020, FAMS adjusted the number and types of flights air marshals covered. The Aviation and Transportation Security Act, enacted in November 2001, authorizes TSA to deploy air marshals on every passenger flight of a U.S. air carrier and requires TSA to deploy air marshals on every such flight determined by the TSA Administrator to present high security risks. FAMS prioritizes several categories of flights considered higher risk, including those for which a known or suspected terrorist is ticketed.

In April 2020, amidst a decline in U.S. carrier flights, the number of flights FAMS covered declined by 90 percent compared to average monthly flights pre-pandemic. By June 2020, FAMS had resumed pre-pandemic flight levels. From April through August 2020, FAMS made operational changes to increase its flight coverage that also resulted in FAMS covering different types of flights, compared to those it covered prior to the pandemic. For example, due to travel restrictions, FAMS stopped covering most international flights but increased coverage of other types of flights. Starting in April 2020, FAMS also increased air marshals’ non-flight work, such as providing a security presence at airports and national events. As of February 2021, FAMS officials told GAO that they were not covering certain international flights due to CDC travel advisories, but were otherwise selecting flights for coverage much as they had pre-pandemic.

GAO’s report notes that FAMS leadership is in the early stages of planning to permanently shift operations toward more ground-based transportation security activities including supporting the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) at airports. According to the Executive Assistant Administrator/Director of FAMS, leadership had been considering an increase in ground-based operations prior to the COVID-19 pandemic—as far back as 2011—but the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic have caused them to accelerate this shift.

FAMS leadership told GAO that a working group has been tasked with identifying opportunities for air marshals to engage in new ground-based initiatives, such as participating in TSA red-team testing, assisting with behavior detection activities at airport security checkpoints, working with airport officials on access control, and assisting with passenger screening at airport departure gates. A program manager has been appointed to lead the development and implementation of the operational changes.

Read the full report at GAO

Kylie Bielby
Kylie Bielby has more than 20 years' experience in reporting and editing a wide range of security topics, covering geopolitical and policy analysis to international and country-specific trends and events. Before joining GTSC's Homeland Security Today staff, she was an editor and contributor for Jane's, and a columnist and managing editor for security and counter-terror publications.

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