Photo from TSA’s YouTube channel. U.S. Air Force photo by Technical Sgt. Sean M. Worrell

GAO: Federal Air Marshals Suffer from Scheduling Unpredictability, Sleep Deprivation

The Government Accountability Office (GAO) has assessed several workforce issues with the Federal Air Marshal Service (FAMS). The air marshals help ensure the security of, and prevent threats to, civil aviation. Part of the Transportation Security Administration, FAMS uses a concept of operations to set forth its methodology for deploying air marshals because there are of course many more flights each day than can be covered by the service. This concept of operations prioritizes flights that it considers higher risk, such as those for which a known or suspected terrorist is ticketed. The air marshals are typically given between 72 hours and 1 hour of notice before the departure time of the flight they are requested to cover.

Among their concerns, air marshals told the GAO review about schedule unpredictability and sleep deprivation.

Air marshals continue to express concerns about their health, but GAO found FAMS has not comprehensively assessed the health of its workforce. Air marshals in all six field offices GAO visited noted health issues, such as sleep deprivation, as a key quality of life concern. FAMS has taken steps to assess air marshals’ individual health, such as requiring medical exams, but has not comprehensively assessed the overall health of its workforce and has not developed a plan to do so. FAMS officials stated that it would be difficult to analyze air marshals’ medical records because they are not stored electronically, though they are researching options to do so.

GAO’s February 12 report noted that FAMS has taken some steps to address air marshals’ concerns about their work schedules. In March 2018, FAMS revised its deployment strategy to expand coverage of certain high-risk missions that it typically learns of 72 hours in advance. Following this, changes to air marshals’ schedules to accommodate these missions more than doubled. In response, FAMS altered how it staffs these missions and told GAO that these modifications have reduced schedule changes.

FAMS also maintains shift length and rest period guidelines intended to balance mission needs with air marshals’ quality of life. However, FAMS does not monitor the extent to which air marshals’ actual work hours are consistent with guidelines because it has not identified a need to do so.

GAO also looked at the issue of discrimination in the workforce and found that although FAMS has adopted a plan to help prevent discrimination, it hasn’t fully implemented it. From fiscal years 2016 through 2018, FAMS employees filed 230 discrimination complaints with the TSA’s Civil Rights Division, though employees may have reported additional discrimination complaints through other means.

In 2012, FAMS adopted an action plan to address discrimination and GAO’s review found it has taken some steps called for in the plan, such as sustaining a FAMS Ombudsman position. However, due to a loss of management focus on the plan, FAMS has not fully implemented other planned efforts, such as holding diversity focus groups.

GAO has made six recommendations as a result of its review:

  1. Identify and utilize a suitable system that provides information about air marshals’ medical qualification status.
  2. Develop and implement a plan to assess the health and fitness of the FAMS workforce as a whole, including trends over time.
  3. Identify and implement a means to monitor the extent to which air marshals’ actual shifts and rest hours are consistent with scheduling guidelines.
  4. Provide all air marshals access to scheduling guidelines, including workday length and rest periods.
  5. Disseminate or otherwise provide supervisory air marshals access to guidance that outlines authorities and procedures for changing an air marshal’s work schedule.
  6. Take steps to reaffirm and strengthen efforts to prevent discrimination by, for example, updating and following through on its 2012 action plan and renewing leadership commitment to the plan’s goals.

Department of Homeland Security (DHS) officials have agreed with the recommendations and explained action already underway or planned. For example, FAMS is evaluating case management software to track medical information and plans to pursue funding for this effort in fiscal year 2021. In addition, FAMS recently established a team to develop a plan for assessing workforce health and wellness issues.

With regard to GAO’s third recommendation, DHS officials stated that FAMS will begin tracking air marshals’ actual hours and examine the extent to which air marshals’ actual and scheduled hours vary. To address the fourth and fifth recommendations, FAMS will provide all air marshals with access to scheduling guidelines, and supervisory air marshals will be given access to guidance that outlines authorities and procedures for changing an air marshal’s work schedule.

Finally, regarding discrimination, DHS said FAMS will review the goals of its 2012 action plan and develop steps to strengthen efforts to prevent discrimination.

Download the full report at GAO

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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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