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On a recent Delta flight from London (LHR) to Salt Lake City (SLC), a passenger was arrested after she reportedly ran up and down the aisle of the plane, threw coffee on other passengers, knocked over a beverage cart and then jumped on the back of and assaulted a man, placing “her hands on his head, neck and jawline,” according to the complaint filed by the Salt Lake County Sheriff’s Office.

That poor schmuck? A federal air marshal.

A second air marshal finally pulled the woman off his colleague’s back and handcuffed her.

For air marshals, events like this, where they’re forced to subdue rowdy passengers, are the most likely scenario when they’re forced to intervene on flights. But the program is under fire for what critics say is a culture that makes it harder for the marshals to do the job many Americans think is their primary responsibility: stopping terrorists.

Earlier this week, a New York Times article on the Federal Air Marshal program quoted employees who said that, though their jobs are “crucial to overall efforts to protect airplanes and airports from terrorist attacks,” their agency is in such disarray that little effort is actually made to deter terrorists. The complaints include discrimination in the workplace, low morale and job-related health problems ranging from depression and suicidal tendencies to alcoholism and lack of sleep.

Employees have pointed the finger at management, which they said has not acknowledged their complaints. It’s gotten so bad that Congress has asked the Government Accountability Office to review the complaints raised by air marshals.

The Federal Air Marshal program was created in 1961 during the Kennedy administration with about a dozen employees. Today, officials say there are about 3,000 employees and an annual budget of $800 million. After the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001, the agency was pulled under the umbrella of the newly created Transportation Security Administration. But that transition to the TSA has come under fire by those who say air marshals should be operating under an actual law-enforcement agency.

That discrepancy in agency cultures became an issue in 2006, when a new policy forced marshals to dress in suits and get military-style haircuts — hardly a great look for officers who were supposed to be operating undercover, Jeffrey Price, an expert in aviation security and professor of aviation and aerospace science at Metropolitan State University Denver, said in an email to TPG.

“This really made them stand out and showed a fundamental lack of understanding of the job of an air marshal,” Price said. “They should dress to blend in and that should go without saying, but the fact they had to be forced to change the policy tells me their priorities were really messed up.”

Part of the problem, Price said, is that the marshals program is being held to standards that are impossible to define: How do you count the number of terrorist attacks on planes that didn’t happen last year?

“It’s nearly impossible to measure deterrence,” he said. “How can someone determine how many times their car has not been robbed because the car door was locked? About the only way to determine their effectiveness is to take them away completely, and I don’t agree with that.”

Stuck in a home that doesn’t understand law enforcement, and used as a pawn to score political points, the program has suffered, marshals said.

“It serves absolutely no purpose other than showing that they are doing something,” air marshal Robert MacLean told the Times. (MacLean was fired by TSA in 2006 for disclosing to a reporter that there were plans to reduce the number of air marshals on overnight flights, and was rehired after a nearly 10-year battle that reached the Supreme Court.)

“The safety and well-being of all our Federal Air Marshals is paramount to TSA and we take any allegations of inappropriate behavior very seriously and act accordingly,” a spokesperson for the Federal Air Marshal program told TPG in an emailed statement. “Any suggestions otherwise are simply wrong. The FAMS track record of securing our nation’s airways is clearly successful and we should all support their important mission.”

“Of the thousands of Federal Air Marshals deployed worldwide protecting the traveling public, a small fraction of our workforce have been involved in alcohol related incidents; with a continued decline as the agency matures.  To be clear, this is not a systemic problem,” the statement continued. “Additionally, within the last five years, one FAM candidate tragically committed suicide. While a very sad event, it would be inappropriate to characterize there is a suicide problem by any measure.”

Price, the aviation expert, said there are potential changes to improve the program, including moving the FAM to the Federal Bureau of Investigation or Federal Protection Service.

“Under the FBI, they could be fully trained as special agents, with the higher level of accountability that the agency is known for,” he said. “This could also expand the FAM’s roles to better integrate them within the aviation-security structure and make them true counterterrorism specialists.”

But it’s not clear if that would solve everything. Some of the current problems include frustrations from managers and poor work conditions for air marshals, which have gotten so bad that they’re more likely to “not react to a threat than react to one,” according to Clay Biles, a former air marshal.

The airlines could do more, as well, like protecting the cockpit with secondary flight-deck barriers — fences or bars that temporarily close off the front galley when the cockpit door is open. Studies have shown that this is much more effective than the current approach of placing a beverage cart in front of the cockpit, hardly an impregnable barrier.

But as it stands, almost any change might be better than letting things stay the way they are, according to Price.

“The Israelis have air marshals on every flight, and while we can’t have that because it’s too expensive, we can do better than what we’re getting now for our money,” he said. 

H/T: The New York Times

Featured photo by AP Photo/Reed Saxon

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