The Air Marshal Revolt
As President Obama plans a surge of new air marshals to protect U.S. flights, current and former agents speak out—about burnout, high turnover, and an agency in disarray.
President Obama has ordered a surge of new federal air marshals—scrambling to get new eyes in the sky before any Christmas bomber copycats can board overseas flights bound for the United States. To hear some of those who guard America’s planes in-flight, the relief cannot come soon enough.
Frank Terreri works as a federal air marshal out of LAX, the Los Angeles airport that averages 640 outbound flights a day. He joined the agency four months after 9/11, seizing the chance to serve his country in the wake of the terrorist attacks. But these days, his sense of duty is driving him to speak out—about an outfit he feels is grossly underfunded and hemorrhaging talent.
“We’ve always had retention issues due to the amount of flying,” says Frank Terreri, an active air marshal. “We should be twice the size that we are to be effective.”
The hours—marshals are expected to fly five 10-hour days a week, 10 ½ months a year--are brutal. And the boredom can be intense; traveling in pairs or groups of three, marshals average one arrest per year per 1,000 marshals, according to Rep. John Duncan, a Republican from Tennessee, in a House speech in June. Burnout is a hazard, and a lot of good people leave. “We lose more than we retain, and not all are replaced,” says Terreri, a 43-year-old Buffalo, New York native who did a stint with the Army infantry and the Border Patrol before joining the marshals. “We’ve always had retention issues due to the amount of flying. We should be twice the size that we are to be effective. When everything is quiet, everyone forgets until something happens. Then, everyone wonders why there wasn’t an air marshal on the Detroit flight. Then everything is reactionary, like it is now.”
Spencer Pickard, too, joined the air marshals after 9/11, coming over from the Border Patrol. But he soon began chafing at the dress code—which banned casual clothes on flights and nixed facial hair—and check-in procedures that he felt put a target on his back. “It’s 115 degrees and I’m wearing a sports coat,” Pickard says. “I’m on a $19 Southwest flight and there is a bum off the street sitting next to me. No one under the age of 45 wears a sports coat and slacks to fly.” The exposure, he felt, put him and his colleagues in danger. “We weren’t undercover; we were targets for terrorists to take our weapons or to avoid the flight. It would be different if there was an air marshal on every flight and everyone knew they were there.” After going to the media with his complaints, Pickard was forced to retire in late 2006.
Nelson Minerly, a spokesman for the Federal Air Marshals Service (FAMS), declined to comment on the marshals' specific complaints. But a Transportation Security Administration official (the air marshals service is a division of TSA, which in turn is lodged in the Homeland Security Department) says the marshals’ attrition rates are falling, and now stand at roughly 5.5 percent—a rate that would put them roughly on par with many federal agencies. This official, who requested anonymity speaking on a sensitive subject, maintains they also have a robust hiring program. A source familiar with the agency says the new marshals will come from Department of Homeland Security agencies including Secret Service and Immigration and Customs Enforcement and be ushered onto planes on an accelerated training schedule.
Terreri wasn’t always so unhappy. When he first joined the marshals, the service offered better pay than other federal agencies, and the work week was more manageable at four days a week, 10 hours a day. Attracted by the opportunity, employees of the Border Patrol, Customs, the Drug Enforcement Administration and SWAT-trained cops signed up for duty. The jobs were plentiful; the air marshals service, launched in the early 1960s in response to a wave of hijackings to Cuba, ramped up dramatically after 9/11, when President Bush boosted the number of airborn marshals from less than 50 to several thousand.
But those folks had a lot of ground to cover. There are more than 28,000 U.S. commercial domestic and international flights daily flown out of approximately 450 airports covered by the TSA. Promises of relief were slow to materialize, the hours got longer—and experienced personnel began to drop out, Terreri says. Many of the original recruits have returned to their former employers—only to be replaced with more recent college grads and TSA screeners with no law enforcement background, Terreri and several other current and former marshals say. (Terreri became so unhappy he petitioned the Office of Special Counsel to stop the agency from disclosing to the media information about weapons—marshals carry sidearms—and other operational data. The complaint triggered an investigation of FAMS and policy changes.)
Rep. Duncan of Tennessee doubts the effectiveness of the agency’s mission, calling it “the most needless, useless agency in the entire Federal Government,” in a floor speech in June. And that was before the Christmas bomb attempt.
Terreri is not giving up. He says the agency is more willing to listen and work with marshals these days. When asked what needs to be changed, he quickly ticks off a wish list. “Staffing is not adequate especially in light of the incident on December 25th. We need more in terms of budget and more staffing so we can be more effective.” Terreri would like to see the agency establish field offices in all the largest airports in the world with the most international flights to the U.S. “If you had marshals on both sides you could cover more flights.” Maybe next Christmas will be different.
Catharine Skipp is a former Senior Reporter at Newsweek magazine where she covered the Southern and Caribbean regions.