What Is The Federal Air Marshal Service And Why Does It Exist?

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Having never had any encounter with them and not being on a flight when they were required to act, we were wondering about the Federal Air Marshal Service and how they came about. For many of us, all we know about the Federal Air Marshal Service is what we learned by watching the movie “Non-Stop” starring Liam Neeson and Julianne Moore.

American and Delta Planes at LAX
Several aircraft operated by US carriers have the Federal Air Marshal Service onboard. Photo: Getty Images

The film’s plot is that Air Marshal Neeson must find a killer aboard a flight from New York to London. While the movie is complete fiction, it does provide some information as to what a Federal Air Marshal job and duties are.

How the Federal Air Marshal Service came into being

President John F. Kennedy created the Federal Air Marshal Service after the first hijacking of a US airliner by a man demanding to be taken to Cuba and two subsequent hijackings in 1961. In a Whitehouse press conference held on August 10, 1961, President Kennedy said of the new service, 

“Now, let me say that we are — have ordered today on a number of our planes a Border Patrolman who will ride on a number of our flights. We are also going to insist that every airplane lock its door and that the door be strong enough to prevent entrance by force. The key to the door will be held by those inside the cabin so that pressure cannot be put on the members of the crew outside to have the door opened.”

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President Kennedy started the Air Marshal Service after a spate of hijackings in Florida. Photo: Rice University via Wikimedia

President Kennedy referred to the Air Marshals as border patrolmen because they received their training from the US Border Patrol at Port Isabel, Texas. Many years later, they were issued with guns. Additionally, they were given close quarter combat training at the FBI Academy in Quantico, Virginia.

X-ray screening saw the Sky Marshal program suffer

In the late 1960s, the U.S. Marshals Service started an Air Marshal Division based in Miami. At the time, the majority of hijackings in the United States were on flights that originated in Florida. 

In 1974 the Federal Aviation Administration took over the running of the Air Marshal program and cut its ranks due to the introduction of X-ray screening at American airports. Air Marshal officers were absorbed into the US Customs service and became an extreme rarity on flights.

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The hijacking of TWA flight 847

With the Lebanese Civil War still ongoing in 1985, a group of Hezbollah terrorists hijacked TWA flight 847 brandishing firearms and grenades. The plane was commandeered shortly after takeoff from Athens, Greece, and told to go to Beirut. The hijackers demanded the release of 700 Muslim prisoners that were being held in Israel.

The TWA Boeing 727-200 was hijacked shortly after taking off from Athens. Photo: clipperarctic via Wikimedia

To show they were serious, they murdered United States Navy diver Robert Stethem and threw his body on the apron. Over the next couple of weeks, the plane flew back and forth between Algiers and Beirut as negotiations continued. Eventually, the hostages were released with the perpetrators escaping into a Hezbollah controlled part of the Lebanese capital. 

Reagan ordered Air Marshals to be put on all US international flights

Following the Beirut hijacking, President Ronald Reagan ordered that armed Air Marshals be placed on all international flights conducted by US carriers. Several countries, including the United Kingdom and Germany, objected to firearms on flights landing in their countries. After negotiations regarding the handling of weapons, these fears were alleviated.

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On 9/11 there were just 33 active Air Marshals

By the time the September 11 attacks occurred, there were only 33 active Air Marshals. Additionally, none of them were assigned to domestic flights. Following the terror attacks and an overhaul of American aviation, which saw the creation of the Transportation Security Administration (TSA), 4,000 Air Marshals were recruited from other government agencies.

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On 9/11, no Air Marshals were on domestic flights. Photo: Michael Foran via Wikipedia

In the summer of 2002, the Air Marshals became concerned about wearing a suit and tie while flying. They said that this outfit blew their cover. Eventually, after a four-year battle, the rules were relaxed in favor of the Air Marshals.

Federal Air Marshal Training

Federal Air Marshals are required to go through an intense, two-phase training program. The first part is a seven-week law enforcement course at the Federal Law Enforcement Training Center in Artesia, New Mexico.

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Air Marshal Getty
A simulated attack inside a remake of a commercial Boing 767 passenger airplane during a training practice for future Federal Air Marshals. Photo: Getty Images

The second phase trains candidates for tasks they will be required to carry out in the field, emphasizing marksmanship and being able to operate onboard an aircraft. Candidates who complete the course are then assigned to one of 21 field offices throughout the United States.

What equipment do Air Marshals have?

Air Marshals are trained to shoot and stop a potential hijacker by first firing for the chest and then the head to incapacitate the nervous system. To perform their duties, Air Marshals are issued the following equipment:

  • Handcuffs
  • ASP 16″ expandable baton
  • SIG Sauer P229 or SIG Sauer P239 chambered in .357 SIG

The SIG Sauer P229 is a German-made semi-automatic pistol in service with numerous law enforcement and military organizations. These groups include Israeli Special Forces and the U.S. Navy Seals.

Flying around the world ready to tackle would-be hijackers might sound like a glamorous job. However, the reality couldn’t be further from the truth. Stuck for hours in planes while scanning passengers for possible threats, Air Marshals, unlike pilots, have no rules that govern the amount of downtime they must have between shifts.

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Sometimes you may have an Air Marshal that encounters as many as five different time zones within a week. Unable to disclose who they are, Air Marshals operate with various cover stories to hide their real identity, which makes the job extremely hard while waiting for an event that you hope never happens.

What are your thoughts on the Federal Air Marshal Service? Do you have any memories of any incidents with them over the years? Let us know what you think in the comment section.

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