Is the nearly billion dollar Federal Air Marshal program still needed?

Armed Pilots Greatly Outnumber Better-Known Federal Air Marshals WASHINGTON (CNN) — President Barack Obama’s budget ax is falling hard on a program that allows pilots to carry handguns in the cockpit as a last line of defense against terrorists. Obama’s proposed 2013 budget cuts in half funds for the Federal Flight Deck Officer (FFDO) program. The current budget of $25 million a year — which goes for such things as conducting background checks, training the pilots, and periodic gun proficiency tests and retraining, in addition to administrative costs — would be cut to $12 million. The thousands of armed pilots, who greatly outnumber the better-known federal air marshals, volunteer for the job, train at federal academies and are deputized to use their weapons in the cockpit. They call themselves the “single most cost-effective counter-terrorism measure” the government has taken. The federal government spends about $15 a flight for FFDOs, as armed pilots are called, compared to $3,000 per flight for federal air marshals, said Mike Karn, vice president of the Federal Flight Deck Officers Association. Those numbers are based on costs of the respective programs divided by the number of flights covered by armed pilots and air marshals. As recently as last March, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano voiced support for the program, agreeing with Rep. Chip Cravaack, R-Minnesota, a former airline pilot and FFDO, that it was a vital part of the country’s layer defenses. But in the budget documents released Monday, administration officials said security measures put in place since 2001, such as locked cockpit doors and 100% screening of airline passengers, “have greatly lowered the chances of unauthorized cockpit access.” The proposed budget also cuts Federal Air Marshal Service funds almost 4%, to $927 million. It is unclear whether that cut will result in fewer air marshals. The number of air marshals is classified. The $36.5 million budget cut for the air marshals reflects “efficiencies and program changes that leverage other aviation security system enhancements, allowing for more efficient mission deployments focused on high-risk flights,” according to the Department of Homeland Security. A current flight deck officer, contact by CNN, called cuts to the FFDO program “very surprising.” “I think that this is just another example of essentially TSA (Transportation Security Administration) and DHS mismanaging a highly efficient program, that operates on cents on the dollar compared to (air marshals),” said the pilot, who spoke on condition that he not be named. The program prohibits pilots from identifying themselves as FFDOs for security reasons. The flight deck officer said he believes the cuts will result in fewer flights being covered by armed officers. “You’re cutting the feet off the (FFDO) program,” said Mark Weiss, a former pilot who served as deputy chairman of security for the Allied Pilots Association, the bargaining unit for American Airlines. “It’s extremely shortsighted.” Weiss, now with the Spectrum Group in Washington, said the government is sending a “very clear message” to armed pilots that they are not valued. “It’s probably (a message) that they’re very appreciative of hearing in terrorist camps around the world,” he added. Like the federal air marshal program, the FFDO program has been marred by occasional mishaps. An FFDO pilot was removed from the program, and his airline, after he accidentally discharged his gun in the cockpit. No one was injured.

The reason this story caught my eye was the Air Marshal program. A billion dollar boondoogle of TSA waste? Or real security? After all, the gist of the program is the unknown. A potential terrorist doesn’t know if a particular flight is manned with an Air Marshal or not thus serving as a deterrent. We don’t know the exact number of Air Marshalls in the program, but we can make some educated guesses based upon statements and public information.

According to the story, the program budget is facing a cut of nearly 4% meaning it currently has an approximately $960 million dollar budget. The story also claims a cost of $3,000 per Air Marshal. Obviously the budget includes the entire department and not just the Air Marshals which is the whole point of this post. How much of the nearly billion dollar budget actually goes toward Air Marshals in flight? Most sources will cite a number of 3-4,000 Air Marshals. The TSA just quotes a number in the “thousands”. Many news reports also speculate that less than 1% of flights are covered with many pilots stating they never see an Air Marshal. This is only rational as one would not expect an Air Marshal on a short hop from rural city “A” to rural city “B”. Nothing wrong with prioritizing threats and responding accordingly. BTW, as a former TSA screener myself, it is obvious when an Air Marshal boards a flight when you know what to look for, so the pilots assertions are credible.

We do know that there are around 10 million flight segments annually in the U.S., with a segment defined as a takeoff and landing. We don’t know all of the ancillary costs of the program, infrastructure costs, the 21 field offices etc., so we can only work with the $3,000 estimate. Divide that into the total $960 million dollar budget and we get 3,200 Air Marshals. Clearly, it is less than that as we don’t know what portion of the budget goes toward Air Marshal salaries. They also work in teams meaning a minimum of two per flight. They also aren’t robots capable of working 24/7/365. They take vacations and have regular time off and get sick. So how many can be available at any given time?

Well, 10 million flight segments annually translates to 27,397 per day. The TSA also assigns Air Marshals to Visible Intermodal Prevention and Response (VIPR) teams, which are ground based, so less potential in-flight Air Marshals are available. As you can see, the number is shrinking by the moment. Take 3,200 Air Marshals and divide by 2 for the team deployments. Take 1,600 teams and account for time off and other availability factors. Is it unreasonable to assume a maximum of 1,000 teams available on any given day given all factors? I suspect it’s actually much less considering the unknown budget factors. Perhaps a few hundred teams on any given day is likely. Remember, previous to 9/11 this was staffed by 33 Air Marshals. Total. For the entire U.S. Commercial airline industry.

9/11 wasn’t a failure of the Air Marshal program. It was an intelligence failure (not going into the conspiracy theories, not relevant to this post). In fact, Flight 93 that ended in Shanksville, PA had an armed law enforcement officer on-board, however they were required to stow their weapon in the belly of the plane. That may have had a decidedly different outcome.

The crux of the issue is the nearly billion dollars we the taxpayer are shelling out for Air Marshals. For $25 million, we have armed pilots behind reinforced cockpit doors. Why cut that budget in half? It’s paltry compared to the Air Marshals budget. It’s likely only a few hundred flight segments each day have an Air Marshal team aboard. The chances of a terrorist gaining access to the cockpit is greatly diminished and, as we’ve seen repeatedly since 9/11, should a terrorist attempt to ignite an explosive in the passenger cabin, they are going to be ambushed by other passengers anyway, so is there even a need for Air Marshals any longer? At least not to the point of a billion dollar budget. So you say what’s a billion in our trillion-dollar plus annual deficit? Not much, but it’s the type of scrutiny we need to put all programs under in our out of control federal budget.

17 thoughts on “Is the nearly billion dollar Federal Air Marshal program still needed?”

  1. Agreed! but with a blank taxpayer check and your operation in secret where would all those former secret service agents who are double dipping go? You don’t expect them to work for their paycheck do you?

  2. I have to agree with Jim from Conservatives on Fire. It seems to be more about power than security. But then again, should that come as a surprise?

  3. Thank God that crazy Jet Blue pilot wasn’t armed. They aren’t cops, Air Marshals are. End of story!

  4. Air Marshals are only on a fraction of flights. I wonder if you would feel safer on your flight if the pilots were unable to defend the cockpit? Not to mention there is no chance an Air Marshal could ever snap due to stress, right?

  5. Armed pilots have to stay in the cockpit. They cannot handle emergencies in the main cabin. Some flights have marshals and an FFDO. Some flights have just marshals. Some flights just have an FFDO. A lot of flights have NOBODY. Which combination of the above would you rather have? That’s what I thought.

  6. FFDO’s do not handle emergencies outside of the cockpit. So, as you are being slashed to death, you want him to open the door, leave the flight deck and compromise the integrity of the flight? Smart. You’ll be dead but the plane will land safely because the pilot needs to stay right where he is. FLYING THE PLANE. People think pilots are super Gods.
    Some flights have FFDO’s. Some flights have just Marshals. Some flights have both. A lot of flights have NOBODY. Which combination would you prefer?

  7. It seems to be your assumption that the Air Marshals are just rent-a-cops with guns on a plane. You are seriously misinformed about the extent of training the Marshals go through. They are highly screened law enforcement officers, trained in hand to hand combat as well as special techniques needed to shoot inside a plane with the least likelihood of blowing a hole in the side of the plane and taking everyone else down in the process. The men and women that become Air Marshals have taken the job with the understanding that they will sacrifice their own lives if needed, to save the other passengers and any other potential victims on the ground. An armed pilot is not a replacement for a trained law enforcement officer. If you’re the one grabbed as a hostage, who do you want taking the shot at the terrorist? I’m going to pick the Air Marshal who is required to qualify with his firearm at a higher accuracy than any other federal law enforcement agency. It is not a lazy, piece of cake job that many people seem to think it is. It is physically taxing to fly on long domestic and international flights day after day, not to mention the time spent away from their families. Some of you may not appreciate the sacrifices they make, or their willingness to put themselves in harms way to protect you, but at least show some respect and don’t compare their elite training to a pilot who became certified to carry a weapon on a plane in his spare time.

  8. No we need to give more money to people who vote for a living. We don’t need no stinking badges…typical liberal b.s. you get what you pay for … no money, no security …go ahead keep voting for these idiots

  9. Well do we need Air Marshals anymore? I guess that depends on your perspective and your willingness to take on a terrorist in the face of certain death in order to save everyone on the ground. I mean how many of you are willing to die to prevent another 9/11? How many of you will give your life to keep a terrorist out of the cockpit of an airplane? Sure if all you citizens are willing, and have the training to know when a threat might actually exist, by all means have at it. Or perhaps your one of the fools who think their is no way another 9/11 can happen so that makes Air Marshals obsolete? Let me ask you something citizens! If you done something once and it worked better than you ever hoped for would you not try to do that same thing again no matter what the obstacles are? Sure you would! 9/11 was a great success for the terrorist and you can bet they will always seek to duplicate it. The terrorist got all the time in the world and it may be 10, or even 20 years or more but they will most certainly at least attempt another 9/11 style of attack and if someone or something is not around to stop them many will die!

  10. In reality all law enforcement officers fail to get the proper respect from the citizens. You always have folks, for what ever reason, hate law enforcement. Some haters may be from the criminal element or disgruntled folks who had a bad experience with a law enforcement officer and just assumed all cops are the same. Maybe it’s the guy who got a ticket he felt he did not deserve. I mean everyone just want cops to go away until of course they need them. You get rid of Air Marshals and just wait and see how we scream for them back the moment something else happens on an airplane. Americans are like whining children! They complain about TSA, and Air Marshals but when something goes wrong they scream at the government for not protecting them. LOL. Well citizen you can’t have it both ways. Either except the governments solution or absolve the government of any repsonsiblity and fly at your own risk.

  11. Air Marshals just suck Per Diem and get fat and lazy. A lot now are ex tsa and barely passed the PPC. There is a joke, you wanna find Air Marshals quick go to Embassy Suites Free Cocktail hour. I say cut them, the whole agency is a joke.

  12. James sounds like a guy who has been fired from the FAMS service. Sorry you did not have what it takes.

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