Federal air marshals (FAM), also referred to as “sky marshals” and “flight marshals” are highly trained undercover law enforcement or counter-terrorist agents that fly on commercial aircraft (some domestic and international flights) as a first line of defense against hijackings.
Air marshals can not turn flights around. Orders for a plane to land or divert to another airport come from airport control towers, not from an air marshal, and the pilot-in-command is ultimately responsible for the safety of his or her plane and its passengers.
But what exactly are air marshals authorized to do?
They also provide security services for airports and other transportation venues, operating as primary law enforcement officers under the jurisdiction of the Transportation Security Authority (TSA), a branch of the United States Department of Homeland Security.
Air marshals travel often, about 15 days per month, over the course of around 6 months of the year, spending around 5 hours daily and around 900 hours annually flying in aircraft.
Their specialty training includes blending in covertly with other traveling passengers, along with expert investigative techniques, self-defense, and the identification of criminal and terrorist activity that would likely go unnoticed by regular passengers and airline crews.
They are also specially trained to be experts with firearms and to be exceptional marksmen. Since the air marshal service’s inception in 1962, their primary mission is to spot and subdue hostile passengers that may be flying on an aircraft.
They are also authorized to deal with and subdue intoxicated and otherwise unruly passengers that may be on board. They carry firearms and are authorized to make arrests if deemed necessary.
Has an Air Marshal Ever Stopped an Attack?
Ironically, there has never been a travel incident where an air marshal has actually stopped a terrorist or hijacking attempt.
Prior to the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, the number of authorized operating air marshals numbered was 50–just over 30 of them were operating on the day of the 9/11 attacks.
Then-U.S. President George W. Bush rapidly expanded the service, and over 600 new air marshals were trained in the subsequent month.
As of late 2013, the number of active operating air marshals was estimated to be around 4,000. They are not present on every single U.S. flight, but the service is actively operational on any given day on a number of designated airline flights.
How to Spot an Air Marshal
As mentioned, air marshals are trained to subtly blend into a group of travelers as much as possible to avoid being noticed. If I ask an air marshal what he or she does for work, the response will likely be something along the lines of, “I work for the TSA.”
Air marshals are known to:
- Travel alone. Most air marshals travel alone, though they do sometimes work as a pair with another air marshal. Because air marshals are often confused with U.S. marshals (who operate within the jurisdiction of the U.S. Justice Department), there’s an urban legend circulating that air marshals may at times be seen escorting prisoners, but this is not the case.
- Sit in the very back of economy class seating, in an aisle seat. Airlines typically keep two aisle seats open in the back (or toward the back) of the economy seats, just in case.
- Wear out-of-season clothing (e.g., a jacket that looks too warm for a hot climate). Air marshals used to be required to wear business attire, making them easier to identify, but since the mid 2000s, they are no longer required to do so.
- Travel with minimal luggage. You might notice a traveler who exhibits familiarity with TSA agents, who doesn’t check bags, and who carries no more than a backpack onto his or her flight. Security checkpoints? They’re motioned to go right on through.
- Board their flights at the very last minute. You’ll rarely spot an air marshal who is standing in line to board.
- Carefully observe suspicious passengers. Since air marshals are trained to be proficient in observing behaviors, you might notice a passenger seemingly fixated on and attentive to another passenger.
- Not sleep. Air marshals are required to remain awake and alert at all times during their flights, in case an incident arises that requires their attention.
So, I may notice a lone traveler (most likely a male) who boards late, with a backpack, who sits in an aisle seat toward the back of the plane, who is very observant about what is going on around him or her, and who doesn’t sleep at all. I have a good feeling that individual could very well be an air marshal.
Is There an Air Marshal on Every International Flight?
Exact numbers of active air marshals are classified and not commonly known, though there are experts that estimate air marshals are present on around 5 percent of domestic flights. Air marshals are deployed to different domestic flights, as deemed appropriate by the TSA, and they can also be found on international flights, but not on nearly as many as for domestic travel.
With a significant decrease in flights during the COVID-19 pandemic, there were fewer air marshals flying, though marshals continued to provide security support to TSA agents in airports and other travel facilities, like bus and train stations.
How Many Air Marshals Are on a Typical Flight?
One to two air marshals may be deployed for a domestic flight, while up to four air marshals may be deployed on flights for international travel.
What’s an Air Marshal’s Salary?
U.S. air marshal salaries range between $12,656 and $339,013 USD, with the middle 57 percent of air marshals making between $61,150 and $152,668 annually. The top 86 percent of the service’s earners make between $330K and $350K.
Do Flight Attendants Know Who the Air Marshals Are?
Yes. Airline crews are aware of air marshal presence, even though the general public is not meant to recognize them or know if they’re on a flight.
How Do Air Marshals Get Through Security?
Air marshals obtain top security clearances, and since they are authorized to carry firearms on board any flight they travel on, they are not required to undergo routine security checks that typical passengers are. As they are part of the TSA themselves, they are often familiar with on-duty TSA agents, who will typically rush them on through and past security checkpoints.