Thursday, May 25, 2006

Are Air Marshals Really Anonymous? Do You Care?

Apparently the air marshals out there are not as anonymous as people would like to think.
A report by the House Judiciary Committee cited several policies and practices which work at odds with the stated policy of the air marshals being undercover.
As a Flight Attendant, I see air marshals on a near daily basis, and, like many of my regular passengers, there are some I recognize by sight.  But 9 times out of 10, even when I don't know them, I can pick them out in the boarding area.  Perhaps this is what the Judiciary Committee is critical of.  And they should be.
Some of the practices under critical review include:
Dress code:  It is believed that the fairly strict and conservative dress code actually draws attention to the air marshals, rather than allowing them to blend in with other passengers. I'd say this one is probably an obvious issue -- after all, who dresses up to travel any more?!
Hotel:  Evidently the marshals are required to stay at designated hotel, probably much in the same way that flight crews do, and are required to show their credentials at the front desk.  I know how obvious we are in checking in, so I would imagine it is for the marshals as well.  Nothing screams out "here I am" more than flashing credentials.  (Well, maybe flashing a gun.)  It's reported that one hotel (Sheraton Fort Lauderdale - Airport) even designated the air marshal service as the "company of the month" at their hotel.  Oh yeah, that will guarantee anonymity.
Boarding:  It's believed that the boarding process gives away the identify of the marshals.  While I'm not in the boarding area to pay attention to this process, I'll grant that it may have validity.
I'm not entirely convinced that the success of the air marshal program depends on the marshals eing anonymous.  But, if that's the stated policy, it's a good idea to have practices that support, rather than work against, it. 
It will be interesting to see what Congress does with the report, and if any changes are made to the program.
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Astroprof said...

It would seem to me that having air marshalls conspicuous would keep the bad guys from doing anything on the flight. Of course, I have trouble thinking like they do, so I could be totally wrong.

Fly Girl said...

I guess there are two theories:

If they are open about their presence, it could be a deterrence, but it will also be apparent when marshals aren't on the flight.

If they are undercover, no one knows if they are there are not, so it would be a calculated risk.

I'm not sure which is the most accurate, but so far the service feels it's the latter.

Jay said...

I once had an air marshall take his jacket off during flight because it was warm in the cabin and there was his gun out for all to see.

Walked up to him and said, "perhaps you would be more comfortable with your jacket on" while giving him the SPOCK eyebrow raise!

BoonDoggie said...

The hijacking on one of the 911 planes evidently started with the terrorists attacking a former Israli military person. They clearly wanted to eliminate anyone that would be a problem for them. So keeping the air marshalls anonymous would seem rather important -- otherwise they're just the first ones to be attacked. And then the bad guys have a gun.

I was on a flight across the Atlantic into the US a few weeks ago with a business companion. We had seats far away and we both had windows. He asked his seatmate to switch with me, and he declined. Wind breaker in the summer, sitting on an aisle, short hair -- clearly an Air Marshall. I'd much rather that some of the air marshalls look like Serpico.

Fly Girl said...


Thanks for stopping by for a read.

Believe me, the marshalls come in all shapes, sizes, and looks. Passengers think they can pick them out, but they are rarely right. I don't know why that is, other than perhaps a stereotype of what they "should" look like.

Churba said...

Another way to Pick them is that its generally the passengers who lock their attention at about 90%, right towards the Flight deck door.

Don't mind flying with them, though - They're almost always plesant, and don't make trouble I then have to deal with.