Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Sky Marshal Story - Experts Recommend Eliminating Sky Marshals...Again - #36

Though my days as Sky Marshal are long gone, in the fashion of veteran soldiers and retired athletes, I still like to read about the game – in my case, air security. Yesterday (2/17) the Wall Street Journal served up a tasty morsel in the form of an article in the Personal Journal section titled: Tips for TSA to Make Flying Safer, Easier.

It was déjà vu all over again. Pre-flight screening is the answer so the costs of maintaining an in-flight cadre (“numbering in the thousands”) could be put to better use elsewhere. To be brutally honest, pre-flight screening has always been more about public relations than prevention. On the heels of 9/11 the government had to be seen as “doing something” to protect passengers. After enduring long lines, the inconvenience of disrobing and in some cases outright humiliation at the hands of the TSA, airline passengers must feel safer…right?.

Despite the TSA’s history of inconsistent rules, rude screeners and sloppy work (Hey, it’s government after all), experts still feel that redistributing the more than $800mm budget for the TSA’s Law Enforcement office will improve our safety. I suppose one reason for laying off the non-canine individuals,* AKA Sky Marshals, is that since that horrible day over seven years ago, no person or group has successfully hijacked an American passenger airplane. Maybe that’s due to the now pervasive pre-flight hassle and maybe the terrorists feel that they made their point and are focused on causing mayhem elsewhere.

*I presume that the 600 explosive sniffing dogs which are also funded under the LE Office budget will be kept on the payroll.

Terrorists may be paranoid fanatics who intentionally misrepresent the tenets of their Holy Book to serve a xenophobic agenda, but they aren’t stupid. If they wanted to hijack a commercial aircraft the last thing they would attempt would be to try to run the pre-flight gauntlet. It would be far easier for them to get jobs as ramp rats or baggage handlers. I seriously doubt that the FBI is doing full field background checks on all airline job candidates – let alone current airline employees.

Do you suppose there are immigrants from the Middle East working in our transportation system who have relatives back home, or who follow the Muslim faith? Okay, that’s a rhetorical question and I can hear the cries of “racial profiling” as I type the words. However, since Al Qaeda isn’t recruiting many Protestant, Catholic or Jewish Europeans, American, Far Eastern and African peoples to their ranks, it’s probably reasonable to focus our prevention on the sort of folks who’ve conducted the overwhelming majority of hijackings in the last 40 years.

Terrorists know that the preflight screening is mostly Public Relations and the airports in general are not bastions of security so perhaps having a last line of defense on board the planes is still a valid idea. In the previous blog, I discussed how few Sky Marshals currently protect our airways. Though the TSA says the total number of in flight officers is classified, they claim that the program is an effective deterrent because one can never know if a particular flight is protected by a Sky Marshal. Well, if they do chose to end the Sky Marshal program then everyone WILL know.
So as a public service I propose an affordable program that is simple to implement and sure to raise awareness of in-flight security. Whether or not a flight has onboard security, specially prepared cards will be placed on random, unoccupied seats on every commercial flight which designate that seat as reserved for...
…the Sky Marshal.
(c) Stephen Rustad, 2009

Saturday, February 14, 2009

Sky Marshal Story - Air Marshals Are Rare Marshals - #35

Even back in 1971, when I was among the 1700 or so Federal Sky Marshals flying the then very un-friendly skies, the big question on the minds of many airline passengers was, “Is there a Sky Marshal on my flight?” You can do the math for yourself: a total 1700 Sky Marshals (or Air Marshals if you prefer) to cover somewhere in the neighborhood of 30,000 commercial flights a day. Even if every Sky Marshal worked 24/7, the answer for about 99% of airline passengers was clearly “No!”

Fast forward to today and some things have changed. Many of the airlines Sky Marshals protected, like PanAm and TWA no longer exist. The stainless steel, .38 caliber, Smith & Wesson Chief’s Specials we were issued 37 years ago, have been replaced by 9mm Sig Sauers, Glocks and the like carried by today’s Air Marshals.

However, much remains the same…

After the tragic events of 9/11, I read quite a number of articles discussing a call to recruit as many as 50,000 Air Marshals to protect our commercial aircraft. Out of curiosity, I went to the website to look at the application. I know what you’re thinking, but even 8 years ago I was still 20 years past top end of the age limit for the job.

Yes, I do think cutting off potential recruits at 35 years was rampant “age-ism.” Still, were it actually possible for me to apply for the job and (mirabile dictu) had I been allowed to rush back to the front lines as it were…if the training didn’t do me in, my wife would have.

Though now an arm-chair Sky Marshal, I still routinely check out articles about in-flight security, which is how I came upon an article on authored by Drew Griffin, Kathleen Johnston and Todd Schwarzchild titled:

“Air Marshals missing from almost all flights.”

At the sight of this headline I was shocked, I tell you, shocked…

It seems that the math hasn’t changed much in the 34 years since pre-flight screening with metal detectors halted the in-flight security program. According to the CNN article, of the 28,000 commercial flights a day no more than 1% of these have an Air Marshal on board.

In a typical ham-handed bureaucratic attempt at spin control, The TSA responded that 1000’s of flights a day are covered. Unfortunately that claim is profoundly undermined by Greg Alter, Assistant Special Agent in charge of the Federal Air Marshal program who warrants that the total number of Air Marshals is in the “four digits.”

Well, whether the actual 4-digit number of active Sky Marshals is 9,999 or 1,700, the net effect on the security of 10.2 million commercial flights each year is about the same now as it was in 1972.

Don’t bet on having an Air Marshal on your flight.
© Stephen Rustad, 2009.